I found David Fincher’s Zodiac to be compelling and absorbing. Though, interestingly, the reasons I liked the movie are not far from the reasons Kim hated it. Zodiac is so cool and detached as to be almost hysterical, as well as creepy, in its insistence upon objectivity (both in terms of its point of view, and in terms of its excessive care in making supposedly “authentic” re-creations of 1970s decors).
How does the film work? Despite what I might have expected from the director of Seven, Zodiac is not interested at all in the inner motivations of the serial killer, nor even in the spectacle of gore that his acts created. Even the murders we see on-screen are oblique and deadpan; we have little sympathy for the victims, but also no sense of identification or complicity with the masked killer — the Zodiac killer is no Michael Myers. The movie has no shock effects, and no unplumbed depths. What you see is what you get, without any residue of mystery or suggestiveness or (even) danger. This is a world that is cooly and carefully visualized, and that doesn’t seem to have anything lurking in the shadows, anything beyond the literal givenness of what is visualized. This makes Zodiac almost the exact polar opposite of, say, Dario Argento’s films, with their baroque flourishes and arcane visual conceptions.
In part, this is because the focus of Zodiac is upon the investigation of the crimes, rather than upon the crimes themselves. It belongs, more or less, to the genre of the “police procedural.” This genre is a popular one in American culture today, as witness the success of TV shows like Lae and Order and (in a more specialized sense) CSI. The focus is on the investigators, rather than the perpetrator, and we see the effects of the investigation upon the investigators’ personal lives. Yet even this formula is skewed in Fincher’s treatment — since the (real-life) case is never neatly wound up in the way it is on TV. We end with the identification of the probable killer, but he is never brought to justice, and even this identification remains twisted up in the maze of false inferences and ambiguous clues and mistaken identifications out of which it emerges.
The narrative of Zodiac is quite literally linear, since it starts with the first Zodiac murder, and then moves doggedly forward in time, without any flashbacks or interludes from subjective POVs or pauses to contemplate the significance of one event or another. One scene follows another, with no blackouts or other ways of emphasizing the cuts; we are only informed of time passing by small titles that appear at the bottom of the screen. The exact same transition marks “an hour later” and “eight months later”; the passage of time is thereby weirdly homogenized. The unsettling result is that sequence (the order in which things happen) seems to have nothing to do with duration and time passing (how long it takes for an event to happen, and how long we have to wait between one event and the next).
Of course, this skewing of ‘real time’ in order to construct a more exciting or engaging ‘narrative time’ is a feature of the overwhelming majority of narrative films; but Fincher pushes it so far, and does it so understatedly, and at such great length (the film is something like 2 hours 40 minutes long), that the effect is entirely uncanny. The movie seems affected with a time disorder malady, a sort of dyschronia. This is all the more the case in that, for the first two thirds of the film at least, the movie switches its focus among characters almost as capriciously as it jumps forward at irregular intervals. In terms of both temporality and point of view, the movie at once revels in absolute disjunctions and disparities, and yet at the same time smooths these all out into a stylistic uniformity. The result, for the viewer, is a kind of stupefied absorption, but one that cannot crystallize or coalesce into any sort of “identification.”
Towards the end of the film, there is in fact one “time-passing” montage of the sort that usually orients us in other narrative films. But even this has no subjective center: rather, we see a rapid animation of the San Francisco skyline changing as the Transamerica Pyramid goes up. And, in the last third of the film, the splitting among multiple investigative subjects is reduced, as most of the concerned parties just give up on the case, and Jake Gyllenhaal is the only one who continues obsessively searching for the identity of the killer. But even here, the results are far from straightforward. Just as, in the earlier portions of the film, the various cops and newspapermen investigating the Zodiac killings never coalesces into a group the way they do in the TV procedurals, so, in the latter portion, the actions of the single protagonist to remain active do not fuse into any stable point of reference. The narrative is simply too choppy and gap-ridden for this to happen.
For instance, Gyllenhaal has a blind date with Chloe Sevigny: it is awkward and embarrassing, as the two don’t hit it off at all, there is no chemistry between them, etc.; and even this devoles into a even worse date from hell when Gyllenhaal drags Sevigny off into his Zodiac investigations. The next time we see Sevigny, however, she is married to Gyllenhaal and they have had a baby. The time after that, she is worried by his continuing obsession with Zodiac — it is both potentially dangerous, and somethng that gets in the way of family life. So she eventually takes the kids and walks out on him (all this conveyed off-screen). Everything here is off-kilter, and by design: the point being, that Gyllenhaal doesn’t have any sort of intelligible private life, but has been completely consumed by his obsession.
Perhaps I am exaggerating this, because of my general bafflement and incomprehension with regard to the younger generation of actors. But here both Gyllenhaall as the newspaper-cartoonist-turned-investigator, and Mark Ruffalo as the San Francisco detective who does most of the work on the case, appear to me like “men without qualities” — to my jaded senses, there is simply nothing distinguishable or charismatic or even interesting about them, so I don’t quite understand how they became movie stars. (The same is true for me of other actors of their generation, like Ed Norton, for instance, or Keanu Reeves. The brilliance of Norton’s role in Fight Club consists precisely in the contrast between his blankness and the floridity of Brad Pitt). Here, in Zodiac, both Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo seem utterly bland to me even when they become a bit crazed or obsessive — but they are set off against the floridity of (of course) Robert Downey, Jr. as the crime reporter who falls into a spiral of bitter cynicism and alcoholic self-destruction, and (in a more minor, character-actor sort of role) Brian Cox, who does a wonderful, utterly bizarre turn as famous defense attorney Melvin Belli.
In any case, the acting in Zodiac is overwhelmed by Fincher’s cinematography, with its dull colors, relative flatness, ceaselessly panning camera, and exploration of bureaucratic spaces (most notably, the newspaper offices, and various police headquarters). Nothing ever feels quite right, and so even the creepiest and strangest sequences (like one in which the cops search the trailer of their prime suspect, and find it overrun with squirrels, cavorting amidst the assault rifles and porno magazines) don’t seem out of place, but of a piece with the scense set in (always slightly inhuman) “ordinary” spaces. All in all, Fincher’s treatment of space is as expansive as his treatment of time is clipped and understated. But the effect is roughly the same: the exploration, almost as if it were being done by an alien, of a world of surfaces that connect and ramify, but also block one another; yet without anything that we could call a hidden dimesion of depth. (The expectation of depth is even parodied at one point, when Gyllenhaal visits the home of an informant, perhaps a suspect or the friend of a suspect, who runs a movie theater that shows old silent films, and whose archives — one of the rare basements in California — have a kind of Gothic creepiness to them. Gyllenhaal gets paranoid and flees, but it becomes clear to us that the creepy movie man isn’t the Zodiac killer).
The world so described is also a world permeated by media. The murders themselves have less presence in the movie than do the letters that the killer sends to the newspapers. We see the letters themselves, and the ciphers that the killer also sends, in extreme-close up on the screen, or superimposed over other images; much is made in the plot of handwriting analysis, though that turns out to be another dead end. The presence of media is epitomized in a scene where Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo meet at a screening of Dirty Harry (released in 1971, and in fact a fictionalization of the very Zodiac murders that the present film is about). Zodiac is so filled with false or misleading clues, with data that seems significant and turns out not to be, and so on, that from a logical-deduction point of view it can only be frustrating. But the sense that all this welter of evidence makes, is that it is all mediated in some fashion. The killer wants, most of all, to be in the papers; reporters bypass the cops with evidence they have found, and go straight to TV; Gyllenhaal wants to solve the case so that he can write a book about it, which is the only way he sees of justifying his existence; and so on. A particularly apt (and “postmodern”) touch is that Fincher deals not just with the media of Spectacle, but also with little media and dispersed media — records in police archives, TV seen on small screens, etc. — which makes for a link between the time depicted (30 to 40 years ago) and the present moment, of ever more widely dispersed media, in which the film was made.
In all these ways, Zodiac creates a overwhelming, but distanced, sense of flatness, mobility, and creepiness: a kind of low-key affectivity that is as much an expression of our general mediascape as it is of the mind of a serial killer. Gyllenhaal, no less than the killer, is consumed by a cold obsession, one that drives him utterly yet seems altogether dispassionate. And Gyllenhaal’s obsession doesn’t even really seem unique to him, since it emerges out of the “noise” and jumpiness of the multiple POVs of the first two thirds of the movie. In any case, when asked why he is interested, Gyllenhaal can say little more than that he enjoys solving puzzles; he has as litle interest in, or understanding of, his own motivations as does George W. Bush. And Fincher seems to suggest that this shallowness and disinterest is symptomatic of “postmodern” American society in general; it is in this sense that our situation today has its roots, not in the 1960s but in the 1970s, or in that aspect of the 70s that this movie depicts. And, to his credit, Fincher doesn’t portray this situation as one of deprivation or lack; there is no mourning here for lost subjective depths. It is rather the case that Fincher has mapped the stylistics, or the geography if you will, of our contemporary form of subjectivity. This is the situation in which we live right now, the field in which we have to operate. And it’s up to us to do what we can with it.
7 thoughts on “Zodiac”
You caught that too. This scene was hillarious and defined the movie for me. It was so obviously out of character with the film that is was initially confusing. Until you come to the only conclusion possible, that it is parody. Also, I think it marked a nice contrast with the actually meeting with the Zodiac killer. The ordinariness of it all. And only suggested by a very particular and somewhat obscure detail, an uncommon glyph on the guys ring. And yet this continues to remain entirely superficial and obvious in identification of the killer. So yeah, no depth, only surface effects.
As always nice write up.
Shohei Imamura’s “Vengeance is Mine!” (1979) recently released by Criterion) is a much better film, far more intriguing because it does many of the things described above while following the killer Enokizu himself.
More on topic, “Memories of Murder” (Bong Joon-ho 2003) more recently tackled the issues of surfacing, ordinariness, subjectivity, in a more memorable (or at least memorably harrowing) way. “Zodiac” is vitiated because Fincher has to show that Graysmith was probably right about the killer’s identity, even if there was no resolution; Bong doesn’t have to do this, because his case was never solved. (I do recall a rather unforgivable look of shocked recognition by the waitress; this seems to insist that Allen was the Zodiac–he may well have been, but I think leaning toward Allen as the Zodiac takes away from the strengths that you identify in the film.)
I haven’t seen ZODIAC, but I am guessing that the problem with it and similar kinds of films which Dammit complains about is that while the flattening of everything onto a plane of immanence should allow for a vessel of passageway through which an Affect may pass through, no Affect ever passes and it’s simply bland. I had that feeling with A Scanner Darkly, despite intellectually telling myself that I shouldn’t have it.
Dejan, I see what you mean but I think the blandness actually is the vessel of passageway, the Affects are the ones you have in response to the particular kinds of blandness you’ve been subjected to. The tension between Graysmith and his wife was bland, and when she leaves him it was much worse for us, the viewers, than it would have been if their tension had been more elaborated upon, etc.
This is where I found the strength of the film, in the fact that it never psychologized Graysmith’s obsession. The flattening of both the decor along with the bland, simulated-bad acting served as a propulsive device for me, giving the film a conical, claustrophobic shape. FIncher is occasionally as adept at making the viewer feel like a shameful voyeur as Hitchcock always was, no small feat to me.
Sean, you feel the film was vitiated by Fincher making the “hero” “probably right”? I feel that was one of its masterstrokes. I think Fincher was playing into the conventions of American popular cinema, and using his twisting of such a convention to elicit an Affect. I was filled with a sense of dread and frustration when I realized how close, and yet how far away, our hero was from his goal. If the movie had had an arty “non-resolution” ending its narrative structural tension would have fallen flat . Also, every chance Graysmith had to give some cheesy moral speech to justify his obsession, he uttered some barely veiled “I don’t know”. All the conventions typical or required of this type of film were nipped in the bud. I feel the best filmmakers working in American popular film are the ones who are able to work with what they have, which is the traditional list of conventions that they must include in order to produce big hollywood films. Like Cuaron’s “Children of Men”, and its documentary-style, real time, art-action film hybrid that had the most Hollywood ending (in the great sense) I’ve seen in a film in a long time. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t come that close to crying at the multiplex since “ET”.
For some reason I kept thinking of Haneke while watching this, and how it seems Fincher is going for some sort of inverse Haneke, a constructed as opposed to a composed sort of “realism”.
Dejan, do you like Haneke? Steven, you’ve written beautifully about him, as you have here. I’m sick with anticipation to see his American remake of Funny Games.
Subwoofer, I haven’t seen ZODIAC but was responding more to Shaviro’s review of it that is to say the remark on bland actors. David Fincher is generally very good, I even liked ALIEN 3 much better than ALIENS or the RESURRECTION. In A SCANNED DARKLY what I meant to say is that some unpleasant claustrophobic or upsetting affect was supposed to have flown through the flattened-out mediascape, but that never happened. I don’t remember a single scene from the film, it is profoundly unmoving, completely cerebral, a philosophical text more than a movie.
@Sean I agree about the parody scene in a way. I saw it as comic relief to the ‘pattern recognition’ sensibility that drives Gyllenhal’s character (as Steven reminded, he likes to solve puzzles).
For me, the movie reflects the rise of an awareness that “everything’s connected” – a belief that seems to come from a grab-bag full of mediatization (the representation of which in this move, as Steven pointed out, was great), systems theory and counterculture. That the serial killer is pretty much left out of the serial killer movie, for me, drives this point home, since it is the lead character’s paranoia that must then take center stage. This would also be why Fincher doesn’t really send the audience in search of clues (as would be the case in a regular thriller). Instead, he inverts the situation and we watch Gyllenhaal do it for us, as if from above.
With a few associational leaps (thus repeating the main character’s behavior) I would say this sense of the virtual was crucial to San Francisco’s Wired years that would bubble up a decade later. But this is going too far without enough to back it up – the thought comes from the fact that I can’t get Fred Turner’s latest book out of my head. Anyway, I still love this movie, and Steven thanks for the great insights as always.
I agree with your reading, but I’d be inclined to reconfigure it around urbanism. To me, the Zodiac killer was an extrapolation of the sprawling, amorphous, postmodern San Francisco cityscape, making the police procedural tantamount to the kind of ‘cognitive mapping’ that Jameson advocates. This is in marked contrast to Se7en, where the cityscape is itself an extrapolation of the killer, giving it a more bounded, modernist feel. Se7en is claustrophobic, centrifugal; Zodiac is agoraphobic, centripetal. Fight Club offers a bridge between these modern and postmodern moments, opening with a stark distinction between surface and depth that is dramatically destroyed in the final act.