It’s Not Quite a Thriller, But ‘Zodiac’ Triumphs as an Engaging Mess





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That David Fincher’s new film, “Zodiac,” is the first major Hollywood release made entirely through digital means without any tape mediary goes against the film’s entire fascination with paper trails, with tangible proof, with building knowledge. Its being is illusory. This isn’t a film about a serial killer and the terror he wrecked on the greater San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rather, it’s a film about how knowledge and identity remain elusive, to the end, even in the face of what appears self-evident truth.

Which is why “Zodiac” is inherently problematic, yet wholly engaging. Fincher’s films, such as thrillers “Fight Club” and “Se7en”, are habitually obsessed with violence first and ideas second, and it’s never been better illustrated than in the halving of “Zodiac.” In the first half of the picture we’re given non-stop serial killer narrative, complete with gruesome murders, inquisitive reporters and the cops assigned to decipher these crimes. And, oddly, the second half is muddier—and better.

Jake Gyllenhaal expertly plays Robert Graysmith, aloof San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist and avid library advocate—our mediator (and surrogate) within the film. Through Graysmith’s obsession with the Zodiac killer, and his evasive trail (footprints, handwriting, scathed victims), we will see the world, and this case file’s particulars, unfold.

Graysmith’s first access point is Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.’s physical precision expressing Avery’s mania dazzles), the Chronicle’s crime editorialist with a knack for the scoop and a taste for the sauce. As the case progresses, Avery disintegrates and fades from the story under the weight of knowledge he perceives to own. In his place, Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo’s paunchy, certain posture belies his sensitive voice) picks up and carries the narrative weight for most of the film’s middle section. Where Avery cherry picks random facts to serve his needs, Toschi is bent on culling coincidences to build an infallible case that hangs together solely for him. Both fail: By foregrounding their investment in the investigation they lose sight of the investigation itself.

Only after the killings are past tense does the film engage thought as an essential process—not only to understand the murders and identify their perpetrator, but how to negotiate and balance our lives. Yet the film is a near-exclusive boy’s room, crowding out the women and minimizing their resonance, thus unbalancing the film and unsettling the audience. But this friction, coupled with the structure’s deferred focus on Graysmith, helps us identify with his confusion in the face of so much jumbled information.

Graysmith, then, is the definitive curator of the film’s knowledge. He’s the only character to use the library, the only one we actually see opening books. Also, he is the only man to dialogue with a woman as a peer, his wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny, always good); he understands his responsibilities, and how he’s failing them. In this, the second half is about how, in identifying the Zodiac, he will reclaim his life.

What’s odd, then, is how Graysmith articulates this identification: by writing a book. All his verbal exchanges lead to more questions, more uncertainty. When presenting his final culmination of research to Toschi, Graysmith is forever shuffling pages, presenting papers, positing printed words as proof. After Graysmith’s expositional monologue, Toschi thanks Graysmith for breakfast and implores him, “finish the book.” Finishing the book, like the pithy eruption of histories that end the film, will somehow ground reality. But even in the ending, the facts don’t add up and you’re left wondering what truth to believe. Or, is there a truth to believe in? “Zodiac,” maturely, would have you believe there is—but it’s a scaffolding you erect for yourself, alone.

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