Dir. David Fincher. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr.
Zodiac is a film which seems like it ought to be easily classifiable in several ways. It’s a period piece, but aside from some appropriate costume and facial hair, it’s does not flaunt its period credentials. (I forget where I originally read the following take – doubtless it’ll come back to me as soon as I post this – but I agree with a point of view which argues that many period pieces practically fetishize their attention to detail above all else, even storytelling. Take Mad Men, which I think has a strong case for being the best show to ever air on television, but which gained a lot of credit for the mere fact that it was really intent on ensuring that every typewriter and toaster was period-perfect.) Mark Ruffalo’s Dave Toschi look is surprisingly good, considering that Ruffalo is more handsome than Toschi ever was, and everything Chloe Sevigny wears screams ’70s cute, but I never get the sense that anyone’s trying to hit me over the head with that decade. No one’s fashion is 20-20 hindsight bad, which is so often the lazy signifier for an entire era. Zodiac is a crime drama where the investigative drama belongs, in the end, not to San Francisco’s superstar cop or his willing partner, but to a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle. As important as Graysmith’s role is to this offbeat crime drama, the relatively nebulous ending, one which never could have stood up to the Hays Code, puts Zodiac in the same genre country as The French Connection, but not in the same time zone. Zodiac also does something which one doesn’t expect the crime drama to do; it puts out what is very possibly the best ensemble performance of the year. That might be a little hot-takey in a year with Daniel Day-Lewis leading There Will Be Blood, Javier Bardem anchoring No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Atonement, Hot Fuzz (yes, Hot Fuzz), Michael Clayton…but it’s a distinct possibility. This is a chain-mail cast, as strong from top billing down to one-scene wonders like Charles Fleischer as the creepy movie lover who scares Jake Gyllenhaal half to death. There’s room too for supporting actors who aren’t precisely name brand but who I’ve enjoyed in my limited interactions with them. Two non-San Francisco cops are played by Donal Logue, who in his salad days played a Union officer in Gettysburg, and Elias Koteas, who is the real star of David Cronenberg’s Crash. The overall effect,with a million and one spot-on performances, is stunning. It’s enough to make you believe in actors again.
In the end, Zodiac is not JFK, which leaves you up at night muttering “magic bullet” to yourself, and nor is it another recent Fincher classic The Social Network, which digs into psyches and neuroses to outline the human fault lines in what might be the most transformative business success of the 21st Century. But Zodiac is like both movies in that it ignores genre. Transcend is a strong, cliched word, and I like “ignore” better anyway. The Social Network was a better screwball comedy than a biopic, and JFK is marvelous propaganda. Zodiac is an acting feast and occasionally marvelous tonal piece, restrained and icy, set in a whiskey-colored palette. Fincher makes reference to two Toschi-influenced movies in Bullitt (which comes up when Graysmith notices that Toschi wears his gun like Bullitt, only to find out that Steve McQueen got it from Toschi) and Dirty Harry. Those movies are famous for high-flying, riproaring action sequences; Zodiac takes those moments away from us again and again to great effect. David Fincher is a tough director to nail down; I can’t tell if he’s one of the best American directors of the past twenty years or if he’s going to be, I dunno, William Friedkin without the psychotic personal life. I think Zodiac is very, very good; The Social Network is 93rd on my list of the top 100 American movies ever; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is so much better than consensus on it. I have a hard time squaring that with Se7en and Fight Club, which are not great, to say it kindly. Zodiac feels like a fresh start in his filmmaking, with fewer tantrums and more chills. With ten years of hindsight, it also feels like an essential movie for Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr. For the former, Gyllenhaal had made his turn as an actor in Brokeback Mountain (essentially signaling he was more than just a cute face for teenyboppers of nerdy and gothic stripes alike), but I think Zodiac is the first time we see the dark side he displays in Nightcrawler, where he’s just unbelievable. Robert Graysmith has to fend off his earnest Eagle Scout self as he becomes more and more obsessed with discovering who the Zodiac is. Melanie asks him what it will take for him to give up the case, to set it down and be done with it. Robert replies that he needs to be able to look the suspect in the eye and be assured that it’s him (which he does at the end of the movie). Between those moments, though, we’re treated to a portrait of a seriously obsessed man, someone who swerves wildly from mild-mannered cartoonist who gets called a retard by his colleagues to the guy who bangs on the door of the Vallejo police station late at night in the pouring rain. (Gyllenhaal gets rained on a lot in this movie.) Gyllenhaal looks better, if a little unkempt, while he does this bit than he looks as the greasy and skinny guy leading Nightcrawler, but emotionally Robert and Lou are very much in the same place. As for Robert Downey, Jr., whose drug problems have been discussed loudly in many circles, I think his original turning point role also came in 2005, as Harry in the self-referential neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is a delightful picture. Harry is very funny and a tremendous sparkplug, yet he’s also a little chickenhearted. Downey has turned a hilarious chickenhearted headhunter into stacks via Iron Man and the many, many, many films which have followed in its wake. The transition here is that in Zodiac, Downey is sporting the same sort of facial hair that Tony Stark wears, which has become as iconic for men my age as Clark Gable’s mustache was for men seventy-five years ago.
I think it’s awfully important to emphasize what’s special about Zodiac, a question which I think is answered about halfway through the movie. Toschi and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) have, after an extremely damning interview with a suspect named Lee Allen (John Carroll Lynch), been working their butts off to get enough evidence together to get a search warrant. They ultimately get it and they make their way to Allen’s trailer. They search it. There are a lot of squirrels in it; one’s in a cage, two are crawling around the kitchen sink, and Toschi reports that there are more in the refrigerator. They find two handguns and a rifle. They find gloves and boots in the sizes they know the Zodiac wears. They fail to find anything, in the end, which vindicates their suspicion that Allen is their man. The interview the two of them and Vallejo cop Mulanax (Koteas) had with Allen was so promising. He seemed to be playing hard to get with all the finesse of a thirteen-year-old girl, throwing out a statement like “I am not the Zodiac, and if I were, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.” Meanwhile, he’s wearing a Zodiac brand watch on his wrist, boots matching the ones they have prints of, and volunteering extra circumstantial information, like the reasons why he had bloody knives in his car one afternoon. But nothing shows up. In a normal cop movie, something big happens there. Instead, the back half of the movie overwhelmingly follows Robert Graysmith as he tumbles into a convoluted rabbit warren following some “Rick Marshall” into oblivion, separating himself from his family all the while. Compulsion is the key here, not relief. Toschi is compelled professionally to find the killer who he ultimately gives up on discovering. Paul Avery, after being personally threatened by the Zodiac killer, becomes so obsessed with the case that he loses his touch. He bungles the investigation by making himself the star of the news for a day rather than quietly turning over information to the police. He writes a letter to the feds arguing his case to be placed at the head of a Zodiac investigation. And late in the movie, he has been made old (and moved to Sacramento, for goodness’ sake) before his time, drinking and doing drugs until his edge is totally worn down. Robert Graysmith’s irrepressible zeal for discovering who the Zodiac killer is admirable in its own way, but the movie clearly shows in multiple scenes that it costs him his family. Zodiac has an appetite, and a toothy one at that, for the disappointments and setbacks which epitomize a criminal investigation. In its own way, although it prioritizes Graysmith and his foils first, Zodiac also finds itself terribly interested in the killer’s disappointments and setbacks. The movie buys into the real Graysmith’s case (albeit without pseudonyms) that Lee Allen was the killer, and if that’s the case then he too has his own slate of letdowns. Graysmith ascribes long silences from the Zodiac killer to his fear at being caught by rapidly encroaching police officers as well as his prison sentence for pedophilia. He gives reasons for killing a few times, though one that stands out comes from the first encrypted letter he writes: it’s even better than sex. Given his predilection with killing women between couples rather than finishing off the men, it seems that’s a problem for him as well. The compulsion to kill is not explored fully, and I don’t think it would have served the movie well. But in a few scenes we can see his reasoning transparently, and he places a sordid obsidian mirror up for the Graysmiths and Averys and Toschis of sunlit California to look into.