With Gone Girl coming to cinemas late tonight and tomorrow, I was craving a David Fincher fix and decided to finally watch Zodiac. Note: I refused to watch this movie alone previously because I thought it would be scary, but it is not a horror, gory, or even a make-you-jump film. Like most of Fincher’s work, it is brooding, dark yet vivid, and beautifully saturated. This film begins in 1969, with the murder of two teenagers. I loved the beginning– no credits, no real context, just a date on the bottom of the screen and immediate action. Unfortunately, the credits start later, six minutes in; credits remind viewers they are in fact watching a production and thus can be distracting or even disappointing, so I’m not a fan, though I recognize it’s the norm. Lucky for me, as the credits roll viewers are simultaneously introduced to the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, where cartoonist Robert Graysmith recently began working. The Chronicle, along with several other local papers, received a letter from a man who claims to be the murderer. He threatens that if the letter isn’t published in the papers, he will “go on a kill rampage.” So it is published.
The reading of the letter felt very Wes Anderson in the way it was read aloud in a voice-over, while an overhead shot showed the hand-written letter, in blue ink, almost frighteningly comical. Who does this guy think he is? Though as the letters continue, becoming more and more gruesome, the papers, and the community, fear the murderer they begin to call Zodiac, since he leaves cryptic messages in addition to letters.
Admittedly I have been watching too much Scandal, so the film felt like more of a slow-burn whodunnit than it really is. The film runs two and half hours and spans over two decades, with lots of information and chilling finds to share. As a viewer, one is forced to question everything the film’s subjects count as truth: Is Zodiac white? Does he wear glasses? Is he “normal” looking? There are devastating moments when one thinks Zodiac has been found, but it is a dead end or false assumption and the search continues. The tagline for the film is “There’s More Than One Way to Lose Your Life to a Killer,” which is an accurate depiction of what this film actually shows—not so much the loss of lives, but the loss of hope, trust, love, sanity. A host of characters dedicate their time to finding Zodiac, but none is more zealous or desperate than Robert, who ostracizes himself from everything he loves to find a man he despises for no clear reason. When asked why he’s searching he says, “Because no one else is.” Eerie, right?
Overall, I went into Zodiac optimistically, since I highly enjoy period pieces, journalism dramas (hello, All the Presidents Men book and film), and Mark Ruffalo. Zodiac did not disappoint. Fincher’s films, including this one, allow the viewer to be an intimate friend, devilish auteur, and bird courtesy of the camerawork employed. The pacing alternates from fast to achingly slow, shots from tight to wide open, and the entire screen is used. This is what I meant previously by saturated—Fincher allows the lens to capture so much, yet it is often crisp and organized, or monochromatic and thus clear in that way. Regardless of how the saturation is set for each scene, it keeps the film heavy, adding suspense without using movement or a word. Sometimes it is almost too much—a taxi cab murder (4th murder mentioned, 3rd murder shown) looks like Sin City the way color is used—but one forgives Fincher for the otherwise beautiful set-up.
The historical context Fincher places viewers in is so well crafted—from the yellow hue of the film, much like the yellowed articles about Zodiac Robert obsesses over, to the nods at the technology and entertainment of the time (“We don’t have a fax machine yet,” a Dirty Harry cut-out at the movies), Zodiac perfectly places an audience in the time and place. My favorite scene showed Robert visiting a previous co-worker of his, who has Pong playing in the background. The sound of Pong plays as a serious conversation about Zodiac is held, and the consistent sound of missing in the game is heartbreaking as one thinks of the mystery murderer. Due to the timeline of the story, hardly any women are seen in the office or investigating crime scenes, so when a woman is on screen, the suspense is heightened even further—you know it can’t be good.
I haven’t read the book Zodiac is based on, though I loved Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (book and film), and have sky high expectations for Fincher’s Gone Girl. Here’s hoping it has the seduction into a time and place, and story, that Zodiac so powerfully captures.