Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Zodiac Film Review

zodiacThe blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I will conclude the 2015 review season with today’s entry before taking a short break from this parallel post series of ours. In keeping with our traditional finish near or on All Hallows Eve, we draw to a close with something that perhaps isn’t quite seasonal per se, but remains nonetheless dark. Involving two works no less remarkable.

Guess we could’ve placed The Shining here when we announced the schedule back in January, but thought a book/film of frightening non-fiction would be a more interesting change-up and remain fitting.

Sourcing this would be an obsessive work by the former San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist turned true crime author, Robert Graysmith. His debut book, Zodiac, shed light one of the most notorious and elusive serial murderers in history; gathering together real-life events and the various police agency efforts to catch the perpetrator. Some involving Graysmith since he worked at the newspaper during the time the “Zodiac Killer” manifested himself to the public in the Bay area during the ’60s and ’70s.

The author would go on to not only write two books on the subject1, but get a taste for this kind of work. He’d write of other serial killers and notorious murders as his domaine d’expertise as a result. As is our custom, my duo post partner Rachel will examine the primary book that began it all, while I’ll review its 2007 film adaptation of the same name by a director noted for his slayers onscreen. The wordy one’s book review can be found here:

Zodiac by Robert Graysmith

A brief synopsis of the film: July 4, 1969, Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau are shot while sitting in their car in a Vallejo, California lovers’ lane by an unknown male assailant. Only Mageau survives. On August 1, 1969, the killer sends three identical letters to the Vallejo Times HeraldSan Francisco Chronicle, and San Francisco Examiner newspapers, taking credit for the crime. September 27, 1969 college students Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard are attacked while picnicking at Lake Berryessa.

The armed, hooded man binds them, then proceeds to stab both victims. Only Hartnell survives. That same evening, the killer calls the Napa County Sheriff’s office from a pay phone to report his latest. Two weeks later on October 11th the assailant kills cabbie Paul Stine at the corner of Mason and Geary Streets in San Francisco before disappearing into the Presidio. Days later, the Chronicle receives another letter from the “Zodiac”, the serial murderer terrorizing the Bay area now and for years to come.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“I like killing people because it is so much fun. It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest, because man is the most dangerous animal of all. To kill something is the most thrilling experience. It is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl. The best part of it is that when I die, I will be reborn in paradise and all that I have killed will become my slaves. I will not give you my name because you will try to slow down or stop my collecting of slaves for my afterlife.”

If you’ve lived in California for any length of time in the latter half of the 20th Century, you basically had to make peace with a couple of things you had no control over. Earthquakes and serial killers. Each popping up every so often. Luckily, only a relatively small set of the population experiences either firsthand. Still, they reverberate in people’s minds long after the ground stops shaking, or the random killing ceases. Northern and southern portions of this state are as different as night and day, but not in this respect.

zodiac-opening-title

Not to waste time, let’s get this out of the way: it’s my belief the film translation Zodiac remains director David Fincher’s finest work of his career. Perhaps, though born in Denver, Colorado, being raised in Marin County, California had something to do with it. He’d have been a boy of eight as the ’60s closed, when all the serial murder began to darkly bare fruit in the nearby Bay area. It’s certainly reflected up there on the screen. The Letterboxd reviewer SilentDawn put it better in words than I ever could about the film:

“Paranoia thrives in the dewy mist of San Francisco while Evil wanders loose, and although Zodiac crafts traditional scares and deliberate suspense around its massive runtime, Fincher’s masterpiece sends chills down the spine because it’s true. David Fincher shoves the viewer into a maze with several beginnings and no ends, and the mystery arrives like a mailbox after a month of vacation.”

Zodiac feels like something the master Alfred Hitchcock would have done, if raised here in these fog-bound streets instead of Leytonstone’s in London. Maybe why his last film, Frenzy, featured a serial killer and had a distinctly personal feel when it played first-run in theaters, and viewers’ heads. No doubt, Fincher achieved similar by spending equal amounts of time and effort getting the atmosphere of the area and that unmistakable period as he lined up the particulars and dates of those murdered for all to see.

zodiac-murder-scene

The tale of Robert Graysmith piecing together all the disparate elements surrounding something as shocking and exigent as real life crime can be, telling. Whether those in law-enforcement assigned to investigate, or the amateur endeavors. Each essentially lugging around a leaky car battery for years, its weight and corrosive energy feeding off whoever carries it. Likely, what it felt like for inquisitors, and moviegoers, involved with this exercise. No wonder a number of sequences of Zodiac remain intensely creepy.

Something you’d expect from the director of Se7en, but here keeping the excesses he’s known for in check.

“Before I kill you, I’m going to throw your baby out the window.”

Conceivably, what fascinates in this impeccably crafted film was Zodiac was more cerebral than previous projects of Fincher’s.  He’s not exactly “subtle.” Little of his trademark violence and brutality show up here, save for those early killings by the Zodiac. Then again, they’re used more to psychologically and emotionally ground the audience, glue them to their seats, as it were. Much like what Francis Dolarhyde did to tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds in “Red Dragon“, I reckon. Effective, and quite unnerving.

zodiac4

* before Iron Man

Also it’s a work of an impeccable ensemble cast. Zodiac a story of men working together, some in infuriating ways, toward a common goal: capturing the sexual sadist known as the “Zodiac Killer.” Jake Gyllenhaal in another amazing dramatic turn as Robert Graysmith and Robert Downey, Jr., B.I.*, doing terrific work as the soon-to-be scarred reporter Paul Avery. Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards exemplary as the real-life SFPD Inspectors David Toschi2 and William Anderson tasked with finding the “Zodiac”, as well.

Add in the likes of Chloë Sevigny (portraying Graysmith’s put upon wife in the midst of losing her husband to his obsession), Brian Cox nailing the bellicose Melvin Belli, Elias Koteas (Vallejo’s Sgt. Jack Mulanax), and John Carroll Lynch’s unnerving suspect. Even Philip Baker Hall performed his usual fine work, but especially the Bay area locations themselves3. Captured in ways, and with an ambiance, that reeked of something sinister underfoot. All maintained this work to its maximum potential.

zodic-approach

Yes, there are quite long, technical scenes analyzing handwriting samples, all-consuming behaviors recreating the scenes of murders, or digging through newspaper clippings and files. An all analog approach that some younger, post-CSI viewers might feel drag it down some. If you’ve not the patience for a classic slow-burn thriller such as this, one chiefly fact-based, and a film that will definitely leave a mark, this may not be your cup of tea. Or Red Bull… maybe Monster would be the appropriate fit here.

Fixated attention to detail, can still be endlessly mesmerizing for some of us, though. Like the victims’ costumes meticulously recreated from forensic evidence lent to the production.4 That, and the stellar cinematography of Harris Savides, returning to Fincher’s side after nearly ten years post Se7en and The Game, certainly maintained the eerie mood throughout. As did screenwriter James Vanderbilt‘s fine script, which had the mighty chore of distilling Graysmith’s in-depth book(s), in the first place.

zodiac-soundtrackNot to mention, the musical tone carried throughout by David Shire’s haunting original score. Zodiac‘s distinct vibe augmented wonderfully with needle-dropped contemporary numbers that were racking up the period’s pop charts or FM’s album cuts. From Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice”5 to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”, and even those tracks by Miles Davis and John Coltrane not released on the soundtrack.

Like the rest of the film, of course, not any of it got a single nod from the vaunted Academy.

Watching the director’s cut (162 minutes vs. the five-minute shorter theatrical cut) for the first time it became clear that Paramount Studios didn’t realize what it had on its hands. Released in March 2007 was almost a guarantee it’d be forgotten when awards time came by. Even if it was a critical success, its less than stellar North American box office was enough to make studio execs not promote it, as well. Too bad as it should’ve garnered recognition and accolades for itself and filmmaker that it’s finally getting today.

Zodiac, the film, carries almost as much of the brutal, bleeding legacy the real “Zodiac Killer” left on the Bay area, and the lives irreparably changed by coming into contact with that taunting figure. David Fincher did his very best to bring the tale to a conclusion, somehow. Still, being the most infamous serial murderer was never caught, a real life culmination was not possible. Still a black hole, sucking light and life out of those coming close. Yet, Graysmith and Fincher proved this was more a journey rather than a destination.

But one Hell of a journey it was.

“Well, it looks like the real Zodiac Killer… was friendship”

Parallel Post Series

  1. Zodiac Unmasked the other by Graysmith, and also used as a reference for this film. 
  2. The real life Toschi was a model for both lead characters for Bullitt (1968) and Inspector Harry Calahan (Dirty Harry films). Steve McQueen would use the same quick-draw shoulder holster as the homicide detective’s for Bullitt, but he and Clint Eastwood drew the line at wearing Toschi’s trademark bow ties. 
  3. Easily the best film based on the “Zodiac Killer” previously, as referenced in the book and film, was 1971’s Dirty Harry. Ironically, L.A.’s famed and fashionably retro National Theatre stood in for the San Francisco venue showing it in the movie. In point of fact, Zodiac played there in 2007, but the venerable theater would close that same year and sadly be demolished the next. 
  4. Source: IMDB 
  5. Used in the film’s stellar opening titles sequence
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18 Responses to “Zodiac Film Review”

  1. Cavershamragu

    Great review – I saw this at the cinema when ti came out but not since. I like a lot of Fincher”s films but I have somehow resisted revisiting this, perhaps I found the tone just too measured, too clinical and precise. But I need to see this again, clearly.

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Three Rows Back

    Wonderful work my friend. This is Fincher’s best film for me and it’s one of the best films of the 21st century so far. It has only improved over time and will absolutely stand the test of time.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Craig Kennedy

    Carrying this over from Facebook. Totally agree that this is Fincher’s best work. It may not be subtle, but it certainly is by genre standards, especially in how it subverts the genre by never giving the audience what it wants. The resolution is that there is no resolution. It also reaches its tentacles thematically into a lot of different things that fascinate me beyond the investigative procedural (and anyone who gets bored with the obsessive attention to detail is kind of missing the point of a movie that in part is ABOUT obsessive attention to detail) like the whole idea of the optimistic cultural revolution of the 60s devolving into the murky disappointment and no-one can save us paranoia of the 70s. The emphasis on Belli as a character always fascinated me because of his connection to the Rolling Stones’ doomed Altamont concert, one of the key signifiers of the end of the 60s.

    I guess it’s not an “entertaining” film per se, unless you’re a movie nerd who gets a charge out of being in the hands of filmmakers with intention and the skills to execute their ideas (I am and I do), but it should still be a fascinating one to anyone who wants to peel back the surface a little bit.

    That it was ignored by the Academy is not surprising. I get the feeling as a group they don’t much care for what Fincher is selling . The nominated his one shot at Oscar glory, Benjamin Button (a film I will gladly defend as unhip as it may be) but they still couldn’t actually let it win anything. Zodiac is too dark. Too amorphous. It doesn’t leave you feeling good and ennobled.

    Liked by 1 person

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    • le0pard13

      What an excellent comment and set of thoughts regarding this film, Craig. The thread on Facebook quite an illuminating discussion to read, as well. Yes, I’d agree it subverted the genre by sticking to the actual crimes of the Zodiac, which were creepy enough. So true about obsessiveness stuff like these sprouts forth.

      I’d forgotten about Belli’s involvement with “…the Rolling Stones’ doomed Altamont concert, one of the key signifiers of the end of the 60s.” That certainly brings back memories. Good point about the Academy and its view toward Fincher and his works. Thanks so much for your deft thoughts about the film here and on FB.

      Much appreciated! 🙂

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  4. Rachel

    Great review as always. 🙂 Can’t say as I liked this one quite as much as you did but I think it was a great depiction of Graysmith’s book. I was really bummed that the discovery of the truth about the handwriting basically being a created composite wasn’t included. I thought it was so important to the idea of the handwriting being key. That was just a personal disappointment but as a viewer one aspect that I thought wasn’t done well at all was depicting the grip he held on the city during his first killings. Perhaps that wasn’t possible with it spanning so many years and being more a reflection of Graysmith’s obsession (obv even the police had other cases to work) than those first years but that clinical aspect of it didn’t make Zodiac seem like he was on anyone’s mind but those involved in receiving letters.

    Also, what did you think of some of the violent scenes being overlaid with songs? That’s a film making technique I’ve never liked and this film’s use of it didn’t change my mind.

    Don’t want to leave on a negative note though as I really do think this film was an accomplished embodiment of Graysmith’s (and many others) work. That’s a hard thing to do!

    Thanks for suggesting this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Glad to hear you thought it a solid depiction of Graysmith’s book, Rachel. As did I. First time I saw the film years ago I hadn’t read it. One of the reasons I sought it out for the series, and to finally see Fincher’s director’s cut in the bargain.

      Yes, I’d agree the handwritten created composite of the cypher was a fascinating discovery. I guess with so many aspects they’d included or melded into the adapatation, not everything could make it. Too bad for this — hmm…maybe it’s in deleted scenes? I’ll have to check.

      What?!? You didn’t appreciative the music motif of needle-dropping those distinct old songs into scenes? I love it, but in this case, with the violence or the disturbing nature behind the, it could tinge in a way you and others may not like (or relate the song to those creepy acts). I get that.

      Glad to hear this was one we both agree was a fine one for us to examine in tandem, Rachel. Thank you so very much. 🙂

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  5. Paragraph Film Reviews

    Couldn’t agree more! Re-watched this a few months back and I don’t think procedures and investigations have ever been this watchable and intense. I also thought that RDJ and Gyllenhotstreak’s rapport was top drawer!

    Liked by 1 person

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