Monday, March 19, 2007

ZODIAC: What's your sign?

I read with interest Matty's take on ZODIAC, and, personally, I sort of disagree with his take on it. To wit:

"Thematically, it's also two films -- reflected not just in the script, but in inconsistent theme-setting music and direction. One is a dark tale of obsession in which a not-objectively-important mystery that wrecks the lives of everyone who touches it. The other is a tale of triumph, where a scrappy investigator solves the puzzle that stumped the experts."
Ehhhh. Except the obsession isn't that dark, lives don't really get ruined, nobody really triumphs per se, and the guy who finally "solves" the case isn't a "scrappy investigator"--it's some dude who comes into the film in the final scene who we've never met before, and the only thing he's got that Graysmith and Co. don't is the witness who everyone from the rest of the movie wished they could have run to ground in the first place. I really enjoyed the movie--clearly moreso than Matt, but I am at a loss because I think that David Fincher's clear intent was to entirely avoid the sort of story that Matt describes above.

I perhaps have the benefit of comparing this David Fincher Serial Killer Movie with his Other Serial Killer Movie--Se7en. In Se7en, all of the outsized elements Matt alludes to are in play. Cinematic "darkness", the promise of "triumph", acts of dogged determination--even heroism--from the investigators. But that universe is vastly different from the one presented in Zodiac. In Se7en, for example, the killer is a crazy genius with a grand plan--so much so that his actions breach the border of the plausible (the investigators unearth hundreds of diaries which, in and of themselves speak to much vaster insanity that the killer's deeds suggest). The killings are elaborately staged events, his pursuers fit melodramatic tropes to a tee, and the environment in which everything takes place is an unbelievable urban hellscape that suffers from permanent torrential downpours. Everything is insanely larger-than-life and everything takes on some crazy symbolic resonance.

I mean...Gwen Paltrow's head in a box, people...

The comparison is instructive, because I found Zodiac to be one of the most thematically unified films I've ever seen, and, almost straight down-the-line, it ends up being the anti-Se7en. In the first place, Zodiac isn't nearly as horrific a spectacle. Its characters aren't nearly as gransiose. And finally, while Pitt and Freeman definitely get their man in Se7en, in Zodiac, the movie cannot really make any conclusions in fact as to whether the guy Graysmith ultimately fingers was the killer or not.

So, with that in mind, how on earth do you build something dramatic out of that? Well, when you think about it, the average serial killer movie begins with a hero and a villain, and sets the two on a collision course. In Zodiac, Fincher finds a way to build the dramatic arc doing precisely the opposite--finding newer and more inventive ways to keep his heroes and villains apart. That's one formula neatly turned on its ear.

Nevertheless, if you ask me what really distinguished Zodiac in my mind from other films is how well it illuminates the mundanity of evil by establishing a world in which absolutely NOTHING is outsized: the viewer is awash in the nuts-and-bolts details of the case as they unfold, the chronology is rigidly linear, the camera focuses on characters' small idiosyncracies rather than large psychologies and the environment is oppressively naturalistic.

As sure as those otherworldly rains loomed over the proceedings of Se7en, the entire enterprise that is Zodiac is haunted by that cipher--the weird code that finds its way into the Chronicle's office and, eventually, up on Graysmith's tackboard. The stage is set for the audience to attempt to penetrate something, yet the film reveals that what was truly impenetrable in the Zodiac investigation was the interlocking sworls of the banal and the everyday--the investigation foundered on the obstacles of a missing witness, bureaucratic ineffciency, misinterpreted clues, interoffice disagreements, political wranglings, bad timing and bad luck. And just as the Zodiac was revealed to be not particularly intelligent, particularly competent or particularly consistent, his pursuers were portrayed as generally good men, more often than not persistent, who weren't particularly prone to moments of shocking insight.

Even that cipher turns out to be nothing special. The work of someone with the right library books and a little bit of education.

Here's a term that very neatly defines everything and everyone you happen upon in Zodiac--"garden variety." Everyone and everything in this movie tends to follow a reductive path back to the normative. Graysmith may be an obsessive--but his obsession seems no more interesting that the shit that leads one to blog, frankly. His estranged wife can only describe it and their time together as a first date that never ended. There's nothing "fever dream" about Graysmith, no long dark periods of soul-searching, no amazing character turns. The end of his relationship with his wife transpires with hardly a whimper, and his tensest moment comes in a situation where the audience understands that logically he is in no actual danger (credit Fincher--we know it full and well and nevertheless get creeped out in spite of ourselves).

The only ruined life in Zodiac--besides those killed by him, of course, is Robert Downey Jr's journalist, Paul Avery. But it's not the Zodiac that ruins his's just as easily blamed on his life of vice and excess! And Mark Ruffalo's David Toschi is doing just fine, by the way--the only residual impact the Zodiac has had on his life is his being asked to serve as an advisor on this very film.

One terrific scene exemplifies the movie's obsession with layering the plot in a fog of normalcy--the scene in which the Zodiac encounters a pair of young lovers near a lake. The Zodiac is shown to be a maked man in a cartoonishly silly T-Shirt. Their conversation is downright cordial. One of the victims last words is to gripe about the weather! And the killing itself is anything but vaunted--it's shot in a way that places it almost entirely offscreen.

You also come to admire the film's obsession with tiny idiosyncrasies: Graysmith's almost whinging attempts to ingratiate himself with his higher-ups, Toschi's love of animal crackers, the unspoken bonds between Toschi and his partner (played with a brilliant straightlacedness by Anthony Edwards, well cast and terribly unsung), Chloe Sevigny's quiet recriminations, the way Avery's story arc played itself out most clearly through his a movie about the the little stuff, you sure get a wealth of it as a viewer to sift through.

It's a movie of garden variety people navigating garden variety obstacles where the only thing more banal than evil itself is the task of confronting that evil, and yet the thing that makes it dramatic, creepy, exciting, and ultimately alluring is that we recognize that the characters--locked in a dance with the mundane, picking up and leaving off threads of an investigations like cast aside dance partners--are very much like us...except somewhere within that tangled thicket of strange, off-putting normalcy is the chance to come face-to-face with something extraordinary--real danger, real history, real accomplishment. All we're recognizing is that simple promise of possibility that sends us out in the world everyday--what's unsettling is just how close the seemingly normal path of a life comes to intersecting with something truly dark.

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