Directed by: David Fincher. I almost did this as a Re-View feature (where I take something I’ve seen a few times before and try to get into a slightly deeper analysis, which turned out a bit better for Ghostbusters than for Se7en), but I first saw this probably 7 or 8 years ago, and as an old film prof used to say, if you haven’t seen something in 5 years, you basically haven’t seen it. One of the striking differences that I noticed watching it again was how my memory had warped the actual film itself to make it much more concrete and serial-killer-horror-film-ish and way less ambiguous and dense and nihilistic than it actually is. That scene at the very end where Graysmith goes into the hardware store to find Leigh Allen and “look the killer in the eye” the way he wanted, was embellished in my memory to a jarring extent. In my memory, Allen’s reaction face was surprise at seeing this guy, followed by a resigned smirk and a dark brow staring him in the face, a sinister countenance suggesting “Yeah, you got me, I did it, but you’ll never be able to prove it, so just leave.” In other words, the film seemed to indicate pretty clearly and concretely that Leigh Allen was the killer, thus providing at least a minimum of closure; even though he wasn’t officially caught, in real life, in God’s eyes, he actually was found and named and everything is resolved in a neat little bow. Seeing it again, though (and re-watching it quickly after for a third time), that scene is way way way more ambiguous than that. Allen, played amazingly by John Carroll Lynch (who, between this, the whacky brother on the Drew Carey Show, and the supportive painter husband in Fargo, is one of my favourite under-appreciated character actors), gives Jake Gyllenhaal a look that is at first surprised and full of anxiety, and then resolves to something else, but what that something else conveys is way more ambiguous than a simple admittance of guilt and prideful boasting at never being caught. There’s room for that interpretation, but there’s also room to see it as a guy who’s thought he’s put the whole Zodiac allegation thing to rest, and here he is, years later, and it’s following him to his place of work again. In addition to being a tremendous display of John Carroll Lynch’s acting ability, it encapsulates what I liked about this movie overall, what makes it so damn re-watchable.
For anyone who’s ever gotten pulled down a rabbit hole of something as strange and murky and complex and unreliable and yet so high-stakes and important as a serial killer case—in my case, Jack the Ripper when I was 18—this movie comes the closest that I’ve seen to any Hollywood drama replicating the feeling of shaky ground, cold trails, myriad competing names and voices, unreliable testimony, fuddled bureaucracy, realpolitik and naive idealism. Although the first time I saw it, this movie felt pretty closely aligned with the protagonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), giving me a pretty straightforward semblance of a stock Hollywood identification process, a single protagonist drawing into something and trying to achieve his goals despite adversity, etc, when I see it again, this movie is also jam-packed with self doubt and deliberate holes which the audience is invited to peek through. The naive cartoonist Robert Graysmith (whose book the film is based on) is certainly a candidate for a strong protagonist, and he’s the last protagonist we see in the film, but Mark Ruffalo steals a lot of the spotlight too, and his character, being way smarter and less naive than Graysmith, maybe makes him more sympathetic too. And the news reporter Paul Avery, though he’s whacky and drunken and naturally a supporting character, also shines through because he’s played with that characteristic Robert Downey Jr charm. Of the three, Graysmith is clearly the dumbest character, and I think, the least sympathetic. Even though he makes a lot of “breakthroughs”, the film leaves plenty of room for us to see every single thing he does as simply a symptom of delusional, tunnel-visioned, idealistic, yearning to solve the unsolvable. What I got after watching the film twice in a row is a film showing us how fucking complicated and ultimately unknowable some things really are, and inviting us to ask ourselves in the face of that fact, why? I think it’s the jaded newsman Paul Avery who points out that more people die in car accidents in the Bay area every 3 months than the Zodiac ever killed. The ace cop, Dave Toschi, points out that, since the last Zodiac killing, there have been over 200 murders in San Francisco for him to look at. The film absorbs these critiques in the narrative as just incidental parts of the “adversity” faced by the protagonist, Graysmith, but they remain as undeniable blotches on the narrative arc; they destabilize and undermine the effectiveness of the otherwise straightforward Hollywood narrative process. The only counterpoint that Graysmith offers Avery’s statistic about how many motorists die versus the victims of this one sensationalist serial killer is his simple-minded assertion: “You’re wrong. It matters.” While there’s certainly room, as I’ve said, to read this kind of thing as a standard Hollywood hero story, the nakedness of it, the directness of it, leaves it so open to critique, it’s so easy to see how utterly inadequate Graysmith’s approach is to dealing with his totally complex problem. Over and over again, the other cops sow seeds of doubt, telling him contradictory hunches of who they’re sure the killer is: Toschi and his partner Armstrong (played by the amazing and underused Anthony Edwards from ER) are dead sure that Arthur Leigh Allen is the killer, despite the persistent lack of fingerprints or ballistics and the controversy over the ambidexterous handwriting samples; yet Ken Narlow, the police chief of Napa (played by Donal Logue) favours someone else, leading Graysmith on a rabbit chase for another suspect and eventually into a creepy basement with a creepy dude (in a scene which, itself, is almost a parody of horror conventions and a distortion of the realism of the rest of the film to slip us subjectively into Graysmith’s paranoid state of mind). Meanwhile, Mulanax, police chief of Vallejo (played by the amazing Canadian character actor Elias Koteas), gives the impression of being totally frustrated with Graysmith’s insanity and, like all of the cops in the movie, seems hopelessly lost among the avalanche of material to look at. There’s the continual confusion over the findings of the handwriting expert Sherwood (played by the great Philip Baker Hall), and his younger protege, and even doubt about the entire line of investigation that Graysmith, and the film itself, is pursuing—as the DA officer Mel Nicolai pleads with Graysmith to “stick to fingerprints, ballistics, DNA—that’s what solves cases, not crossword puzzles.” It’s a giant, muddled, confused mess, as real life criminal cases are, and the critical and audience reaction to the film indicates how important this movie was—people wanted a good old, escapist horror film, and what they got was the much more sublime and subtle horror of the fact that, in this modern age, with modern police departments, and modern technology, and DNA evidence, it’s still possible for a random person (or people) to kill random strangers with impunity and fade into obscurity and into legend, like the fog on the Golden Gate Bridge. Throughout the considerable running time, we get files and papers, words and phone calls, experts and witness testimony. What we don’t get are a lot of screams—the killings are very detached scenes, still horrifying, but without any horror film conventions, and from the 30 minute mark or so, at the taxi cab killing, it becomes firmly a police procedural.
This film has a minimum of Fincher’s trademark active camera work or conspicuous stylistics, but there are a few things that seem all the more jarring because of that. The shot of a tower being constructed in fast motion (presumably a distinctive San Francisco landmark?) is quite jarring, very unlike the rest of the movie, and a really striking way of showing the passage of time. Also interesting is the overhead camera following the taxi cab as the radio plays talk shows about the Zodiac killings and the public’s reaction to it. When we finally see the heavily stylized, slow motion killing of the cabbie Paul Stine, it’s a huge contrast from the stark daylight scene of the previous killing by the guy in the hood. This is what I mean, the film is juggling two or more distinct kinds of storytelling style, it’s trying to unseat us from our viewing position and to get us to think critically about the relationship of fiction and mythology and escapism to the real-world things that we’re concerned about. I guess I won’t probe much deeper on this, but it’s a fantastically interesting movie, utterly re-watchable, and it’s full of great acting. In addition to the great performances from Gyllenhaal, Ruffalo, Edwards, Lynch, Downey, Logue, Phillip Baker Hall and my man Elias Koteas, we get a great, movie-stealing supporting role by Chloë Sevigny, another great movie-stealing role from the bombastic Brian Cox, a great little role from Dermot Mulroney, and a delightful recurrence of two Fincher regulars, Zach Grenier as Mel Nicolai (instantly recognizable as the boss in Fight Club), and Jimmi Simpson (the hacker from House of Cards and the creepy brother from It’s Always Sunny), here playing an older, haggard Mike Mageau as he identifies the photograph of Allen (in Toronto’s Pearson Airport for some reason). I don’t know what else to say, it’s a great movie, you should see it, you should see it again, and frankly, since I heard about a DVD re-release with a ton of extra footage and DVD extras, I might just buy the darn thing.