Of the countless shows based around the hypnotic and reliable rhythms of the crime procedural, our personal favorite, the relatively recent "Criminal Minds," is the likely apex (or nadir). While other shows have staked out their own fields of expertise â€” sex crimes, Las Vegas, missing persons â€” "Criminal Minds" wants for itself only the Most Dangerous of Criminals, more often or not that foie gras of the villainous world, the serial killer with a shtick. Its team of diversely attractive FBI agents darts around the country in a private jet, applying their profiling skills wherever needed ("That’s the second murder in a month. He’s escalating!") in order to wrap up a case in 44 minutes. It’s wretchedly silly and absurdly compelling, a show that presumes a world with such a surfeit of psychobabble-enabled malefactors that it necessitates a special government division.
"Zodiac," David Fincher‘s first film since 2002’s "Panic Room," is a procedural in the true sense of the word â€” it chronicles, in exhausting detail, the minutiae of the investigation into the Zodiac Killer in the late 60s and 70s, a case that remains unsolved. It is also, less successfully, an examination of obsession, of our fascination with and longing for the plotlines and the looming villains so easy to find in film, TV and airport novels, their unhinged minds ready to be unlocked by some intrepid investigator with the right insights. Life is not a paragraph; neither, at two hours and 40 minutes, is "Zodiac," a film that’s more interesting to write about than it is to watch. The real world may well fail to cohere to a convenient narrative; seeing this demonstrated on screen is, as you’d guess, unsatisfying.
"Zodiac" begins with a brutal make-out point murder that chills with its meticulously recreated details, a crime the killer takes credit for when he writes to the San Francisco Chronicle and two other Bay Area papers in August of 1969, demanding they publish a cipher. Political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is at the paper when the letter arrives; his interest is immediate â€” cryptography and puzzles are his hobby. But he jostles at the sidelines of the film for a long time; the investigation belongs to the competent, slightly showboating Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his long-suffering partner Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), and to reporter Paul Avery (the always fun Robert Downey Jr.). By the time Graysmith emerges as the main character, he seems to have won by virtue of sticking it out the longest; Toschi drifts away to other cases, Armstrong to other departments, Avery to obscurity, living on a houseboat, wallowing in drugs and alcohol. Graysmith, the Eagle Scout, the cartoonist turned amateur sleuth, can’t put the puzzle down, and so he gets to grace the film with the themes of obsession to which it eventually comes round as a seeming afterthought â€” after all, the real Robert Graysmith wrote the two books on which the film is based.
The Zodiac Killer loomed large in the imagination; he had San Francisco trembling in his shadow. But it’s likely he only actually killed five people, though he took credit for other murders he didn’t commit â€” a fact that Avery informs Graysmith, after which he observes "You almost look disappointed." Whatever prompted his first murders is unknown; what kept him going and kept him writing to the papers, on the other hand, is easily apparent. He enjoyed creating his own mythology, and the media was happy to help. A scene involving the killer’s proposed call-in to speak to a local lawyer (played by Brian Cox) on a live morning show could prompt nervous giggles â€” talking to the killer, on a live broadcast! Frightening, but great TV. It was good business for all involved â€” Graysmith is the only one without an angle, and the only one unable to put the case down when everyone else was ready to move on.
Fincher, himself responsible for one of pop culture’s most grandly gothic serial killers in "Se7en"‘s John Doe, does takes an ax to the conventions of the crime genre, if such a dramatic phrase can be used for a film that avoids all easy provocations. The murders, along with one late night roadside kidnapping, are all brilliantly staged, chilling in their unfeigned details, and over and done with early in the film. The point is not the killings themselves, nor the murderer, whose possible identity seems so diffuse by the end that everyone and no one could be a suspect. The grind is the point, the weeks passing until they’ve added up to years, the case resting not on dramatic interrogations but on handwriting analysis, evidence spread over four counties not prone to much communication. Fincher keeps his whiz-bang bag of camera tricks closed, keeping his direction unobtrusive save for the occasional flashy shot â€” one, overhead on the Golden Gate Bridge, has the untethered feel of a dream.
We’re given all of the details, the dead ends, the backtracking, and yet the cumulative effect is not a portrait of obsession, merely evidence of it. The Zodiac Killer, pinned down with the weight of all these documented facts, seems small, not worth dedicating decades to, and that revelation is hardly the equivalent of a one liner before the credits roll.
"Zodiac" opens wide today.
+ "Zodiac" (Paramount)