Knight at the Movies Archives
Jake Gyllenhaal returns in David Fincher's creepy take on the publicity seeking serial killer; Isabelle Huppert is an all powerful judge
in her latest collaboration with Chabrol
In 2004 I followed a private investigator around for months on a variety of his cases for a feature story I was working on for the
Chicago Reader. There was a bank theft, a suspected cheating boyfriend, a case of possible illegal wiretapping, and the Big Kahuna,
an unsolved murder. When the story was finished none of the cases was successfully resolved which frustrated both my editor and, I
would guess, subsequent readers of the piece. But as the detective explained over and over – and as became clear as I worked the
story – this is more often than not the reality of true crime. It’s not nearly as “open and shut” as you’d think.
But audiences conditioned, after a hundred years of movies and a half century of crime detective TV shows, not to mention a
gazillion books in the genre, have come to expect a satisfactory resolve – the vicarious thrill of outwitting the cops and the last
minute dramatic capture of the killer (or more likely, his bloody death). That’s the huge buzz kill hanging over David Fincher’s
Zodiac, the director’s film version of the reign of terror wreaked by the self-proclaimed serial killer over the San Francisco area in
the late 1960s and early 1970s. The zodiac killer was never caught.
Though Fincher’s movie seems to tantalize with the prospect of a satisfactory resolution and for a long while, actually points in that
direction, Zodiac (clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes) eventually errs on the not so scintillating side of reality – with lots of
dangling loose ends as the credits finally crawl. Fincher tries to offset that by utilizing the tried and true mechanics of suspense (the
creepy, dank basement lit by the naked light bulb, the unsuspecting lovers brutally shot or stabbed, the calm but deadly voice of the
killer on the phone, the threatening, coded letters, etc.). The script (by James Vanderbilt who wrote Darkness Falls about an
avenging tooth fairy) handpicks incidents (the validity of some which are in doubt) that help keep the creepy feeling alive. But the
result is more a simulation of suspense than the actual thing. Perversely, the reality of these murders and the decades-long follow-
up to solve them isn’t nearly as satisfying as a really good episode of “Law & Order” or Dirty Harry – the first of many films that have
borrowed heavily from the Zodiac’s modus operandi but gave the audience the much desired fade out catharsis.
The unnerving story of the Zodiac killer seems like the perfect match up for the man who made Se7en and scared audiences silly.
This is, after all, a director who has said, “I don’t know how much movies should entertain. To me, I’m always interested in movies
that scar” and “I have demons you can’t imagine.” Those statements fit up nicely with Fincher’s early movies Alien 3 and Se7en but
less so with the underrated The Game and Panic Room where Fincher moved into far more conventional thriller territory and seemed to
leave the demons behind (his homoerotic camp classic Fight Club is a movie category unto itself). Zodiac combines both of the
director’s dark sensibilities. He apparently still wants to “scar” an audience but he’s more interested now in the demons infecting his
characters rather than the situations themselves.
It’s the cumulative effect of the unsolved killings that gnaw at the characters in Zodiac (and leaves the greatest residue after the
movie). The lead homicide detective on the case, the animal cracker chewing David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the San Francisco
Chronicle news reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and especially the paper’s cartoonist and for the longest time, an onlooker
into the story, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) all find themselves so obsessed with discovering the killer’s true identity that it
adversely impacts their lives.
Toschi is so determined to keep the case alive that he at one point is accused by gay writer Armistead Maupin of forging a note from
the Zodiac (an assertion later proven to be false). Meanwhile, Avery, portrayed as a cocaine sniffing alcoholic (addictions that
obviously resonate with Downey in the part) actually starts getting notes from the killer which ratchets up his paranoia and alcohol
intake. Graysmith suffers the worst psychological damage – with his obsession eventually taking over his life and ruining both his
job and his marriage. (Graysmith at least has a partially happy ending – turning his interest in the case into the bestseller that the
movie’s based on).
Fincher gives you all this and a lot more over the dozen years that the movie covers. He also captures the look and feel of the
period beautifully and the movie is helped by its choice of retro songs (the first killing is done to Donovan’s unnerving “The Hurdy
Gurdy Man”) and the unobtrusive score of David Shire, who was a noted film composer during the 1970s and returns to screen
composing with Zodiac. Gyllenhall (in his first screen foray since Brokeback Mountain), Downey and Ruffalo, along with a year’s supply
of great character actors, do superlative work with their sometimes thinly written parts (for one thing we’re never really clear what
obsesses the cartoonist so about the case).
But eventually the myriad of theories, suspects, not to mention all those scenes with the handwriting analyst (played by Philip Baker
Hall) fatigue the audience and I noted a lot of watch glancing and text messaging around me as the movie wore on. And just
curious – why doesn’t anyone ever suggest the obvious possibility of two killers working in tandem and writing different parts of the
notes to fool the analyst?
The mystery of the Zodiac killer – who claimed victims in multiple, not always cooperative counties in northern California and sent
encrypted notes to the media (some still to be deciphered) – has never been solved. We knew that up front but that doesn’t make
Zodiac a less frustrating -- albeit it a tantalizing -- movie.
Isabelle Huppert, one of the French cinema’s biggest stars (and most familiar to GLBT audiences as one of Ozon’s 8 Women)
collaborates for the umpteenth time with director Claude Chabrol on Comedy of Power. In the film Huppert plays Jeanne
Charmanat-Killman, an all powerful judge who is determined to get the goods on each and every member of a consortium of
crooked corporate bigwigs. Jeanne goes about her business in a precise, cool manner, doesn’t allow emotion to come into her
judgment, and is never without her red gloves (a subconscious, very French psychological nod to Lady Macbeth – get it?).
As the film progresses a lot of things about Jeanne begin to crumble around her – her marriage goes on the rocks, her life is
threatened when her car brakes are cut, she is subject to intimidation, etc. But nothing seems to phase Jeanne and those in the
highest seats of power, aware that she is getting too close for comfort, bring in another judge, a woman, to keep a watch on her,
report back to them, and mainly distract her with what they assume will be innate feminine competition. But the two ladies instantly
figure this out and become easy going allies, both determined to root out the white collar criminals.
An American version of this Deborah vs. Goliath story, a roman a clef inspired by France’s biggest business and political scandal in
decades, would likely ratchet up the high drama, tension and imminent danger but Chabrol’s film (and Huppert’s performance) stays
calm and collected. There is nothing here nearly as pumped up as Erin Brockovich or Sissy Spacek’s Marie and the result, after years
of conditioning on these pictures and all those Lifetime Television for women in jeopardy flicks should be refreshing. But Chabrol’s
straight ahead, matter of fact approach, considering the dramatic events, is not particularly involving.
Zodiac-Comedy of Power
2-28-07 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column*
By Richard Knight, Jr.
*Zodiac screened after my WCT deadline but in time for me to include it here. It will be included in my WCT print
column next Wednesday. My lead review in this week's column is the review for Oliver Stone's Alexander Revisited.