Sunday, August 2, 2015

Best of the 2000s: Zodiac

5 Stars

Zodiac is the best thriller and best detective story in the 21st Century. It’s also hands down the best David Fincher movie.

Zodiac tells the story of “The Zodiac Killer.” The historical Zodiac haunted Northern California from December 1968 to January 1974. He is credited with at least five murders and the almost murder of two more. Several other crimes are thought, but unconfirmed, to be his, and Zodiac himself claimed to have killed dozens. He has never been identified. To this day, no one has been charged.

Zodiac is part police procedural and part newspaper film, and is based on the book Zodiac by one time San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal. Graysmith became fascinated with Zodiac after Zodiac sent his first letter to the San Francisco Chronicle. The letter contained a cipher, a puzzle so low tech that it defeats the methods of the investigators arrayed against Zodiac. Graysmith, a puzzle enthusiast, finds himself lured into the frightening world of the killer and the toxic world of the men arrayed against him.

Graysmith finds entrée into the world of homicide investigation by attaching himself to the desk of Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Chronicle’s hard drinking and foolhardy crime reporter. As the investigation continues, his association with Avery brings him into the orbit of David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).

Modern audiences may have forgotten, but Toschi was famous at the time. He served as the model for Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry. Fincher portrays him as a generally good, if idiosyncratic detective, who’s fatal flaw is that he likes seeing his name in print too much. As Zodiac progresses, Zodiac either accidentally or on purpose exploits the inappropriate alliance between Avery and Toschi, and destroys both men. Graysmith, unable to let the case go, gives up his job, his wife, and maybe his sanity in order to satisfy himself that he knows who the killer is. He eventually builds a circumstantial case against Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch).

Graysmith is convinced he’s solved the case, but the physical evidence (even in the movie) suggests otherwise. Fincher does a great job dramatizing the tension between one man’s conviction and the actual truth.

Zodiac’s story has been told before. In fact some members of Fincher’s cast have been in previous screen versions, but Fincher invests this story with a tension missing from previous versions. In part, it’s because he channels Hitchcock. At least five different actors portray the killer or a named suspect, allowing Zodiac to be whatever the witnesses claimed he was. In the process, he becomes more than a serial killer. He becomes the opposite number of each of the men arrayed against him. Zodiac cows Avery the swaggering crime reporter. He sucks up the copy, denying the fame hungry Toschi his headlines. And to Graysmith, he becomes the puzzle that can’t be broken.

It is in Graysmith’s metaphorical descent into the investigation that Fincher truly finds his story, and Fincher dramatizes that metaphor in the final reel as Graysmith actually descends into the basement of one of the most probable Zodiac suspects. This scene is incredible. The sounds, the lighting, the dialogue, and the acting merge to create one of the simplest and scariest scenes in the new millennium.

Of course, Fincher’s film ought not to be confused with real history. In particular, Zodiac heavily implies that Paul Avery was somehow undone by the Zodiac. In real life, he went on to cover the story of Patty Hearst. Zodiac also implies that Allen was the killer, and I think most modern investigators have coalesced around one of the Zodiac’s early victim’s ex-husbands as the true killer. Finally, Zodiac also implies that Graysmith’s obtained closure by finishing his book and naming his suspect. That’s possible, but the rest of Graysmith’s career makes me wonder – he went on to write at least one more book about Zodiac, and several more about high profile crimes (including the book that inspired Auto-Focus).

Nevertheless, Zodiac is everything you might hope for in a thriller, mystery, or detective story. It is slick, good looking, intense, and frequently scary – evoking just how horrible these crimes were and how on edge they must have made people feel. It’s clearly one of the best films of the 2000s.

Zodiac finds itself on this list because it was selected by four different reviewers as one of the top ten films of the 2000s. None of the sampled reviewers selected it as the best. On the metacritic list that I am using to navigate this project it is tied with 9 other features all with four mentions a piece.

From Out in the Void


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