Zodiac – A Study of Obsession

A review of another film that I love.  Just me and my new kitten sitting here on a dreary Friday morning.  It’s either write a review… or write a song.  I’m not in the mood to write a song… so, I’ll try to convince you to watch another film that I think is worthy of your time.  That pretty much explains my consistent high scores.  I’m only reviewing films that I like.  If I was reviewing the latest releases you would see a whole different world of scoring pain.

Zodiac is based on the true events concerning a 60s/70s America based serial killer.  The distinguishing fact about this particular killer was that he chose to write letters to the papers, ‘Jack the Ripper’ stylee.  He also used coded messages that required deciphering. He named himself ‘Zodiac’.

The film opens with a shock first kill before the opening credits.  The first thing you notice is the gorgeous pastel shades and the beautiful lighting.  Make no mistake, this is a pretty film – a very stylistic film, almost fake looking in the way that Edward Scissor Hands was.  I’m watching on BluRay and the whole experience is stunning!  Zodiac is directed by David Fincher, a favourite of mine, and his hallmarks are all over every scene.  The opening credits warp you through a psychedelic 60’s drug induced haze into the film proper.  And the film proper is a piece of 1970’s American cinema.  The tone, aspects of the look, and especially the pacing are bang on 1970s modern American Cinema. This film is a kind of companion piece to movies such as All The President’s Men and The Conversation.

The film centres around the San Francisco Chronicle.  The office of the paper actually reminds me of the office in All The President’s Men… you kind of know the path this film is going to take immediately.  We are introduced to Paul Avery, the Chronicle’s crime reporter, played by Robert Downey Jr.  Avery is a troubled individual and Downey Jr plays him with downtrodden style.  I think this is a tour de force by Downey Jr.  He nails the role.

We are also introduced to cartoonist, Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Graysmith is an oddly introverted character and in this respect Gyllenhaal is an example of perfect casting.  Graysmith becomes obsessed during the course of the film with identifying the Zodiac killer.  In fact the book he eventually writes is the source of inspiration for this film.

I just have to hark back to the visuals again.  This is a stunningly shot film.  The effects work is superb throughout and is so subtly done that a lot of the audience would probably be unaware of its existence!  25 minutes into the film we are subjected to an awesome ‘original Grand Theft Auto-esque’ top down shot of a taxi ride.  This plan view tracking shot is like a living video game… absolutely phenomenal.   You can probably pick up on the fact that I like the look of this film!

Let’s mention the music.  Fantastic choices of rock music to indicate the passing of time and beautiful interconnecting piano pieces.  The soundtrack is consistent with the film’s 70’s leanings.

I mentioned the passing of time.  This film is very much about time.  The film spans decades and Fincher’s use of visual and audio techniques to show the passage of time is incredible.  Of course, with the passing of time comes the progression of character.  Avery disintegrates, Graysmith disintegrates and integrates … not sure that reads right!  Ha ha!  Graysmith’s life crumbles and yet his personal resolve builds.

On the police side of things we have Dave Toschi (played by Dave Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (played by Anthony Edwards).  At one point Toschi is wearing a Columbo style mac.  This film is just my kind of film!!!  The obsession with the Zodiac killer drives both men to despair.  You can see similarities between Avery and Toschi.  Personal destruction brought about by obsessive behaviour.  In fact you can almost think of this film as a study of obsession.

So… the Zodiac killer.  This film is similar to All The President’s Men in its depiction of the progress of a story based on fact.  There are also hints of Stone’s JFK in that Fincher seems to point us towards a suspect.  A suspect that is made out by the film to be the true suspect.  This reminds me of all those ‘Jack the Ripper’ documentaries that each purport to have finally identified the killer.  What, for me lifts this film above other ‘crime’ thrillers is the showing of the forensic detail.  This may be as a result of a decade of CSI on the television… but I believe that it’s really just Fincher wanting to present the case as is.  For me, this film presents the minutiae of the forensic case brilliantly.  Footwear mark evidence, so often to this day the ugly, neglected sibling of the fingerprint, is brought to the fore.  Fingerprints, ballistics, similarities in modus operandi and thorough research are shown in all their dry, drawn out glory.

What interests me the most is the weight of  ‘truth’ and ‘value’ placed purely upon questioned document evidence in the Zodiac case.  The film shows suspects being ruled out purely because their handwriting does not match the letters attributed to the Zodiac killer.  Even when a whole wealth of other circumstantial evidence would appear to make someone a prime suspect, the opinion of the handwriting expert is the be all and end all.  Okay, I accept that the police at the time only really had the letters as a solid link between the crimes.  The surviving witnesses all described different looking people as being the killer.  Also, there was no DNA evidence back then.  All the killer really had to do was wear a pair of gloves, be careful, and he would have had very few problems with evading capture.  But the killer chose to write those letters.  Therefore I do understand how those letters became so important in establishing a case against any suspect.  However, there are so many flaws with using handwriting evidence as a bedrock for an investigation.  I really found this aspect of the film rather good.  I was impressed by the fact that so much time was given to the discussion of this evidence – evidence that may have in fact hindered rather than helped all concerned.

In the end the film can be viewed in two ways:  One, as the accurate-ish depiction of behind the scenes work on a serial killer case. Two, as the destruction of people’s lives as the result of an obsession.

So, I feel like I should trot out my usual positive/negative paragraphs as I work towards a score.

Positives: Robert Downey Jr is superb.  I’m a fan of his anyway, but he does excel here!  The acting in general is just outstanding.  Brian Cox gives a mountain of a performance and all the leads act their hearts out!  I think I need to single out the actor who plays the ‘main suspect’.  He is terrifying.  Great job!  I love the visuals of the film and the marvellous representation of the passing of time.  I love the ruthless intelligence and the trust of the director that the audience will be ‘fit for purpose’ regarding the forensic detail.

Negatives:  Hmmmm.  If I’m going to be picky I’d rather Robert Downey Jr had actually talked during the film rather than mumbled.  On a 10th watch I have no problems with it… but recalling my first viewing I do remember shouting “What? .. WHAT?!?” at the screen a few times! 😉

I am not a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, so that should be enough to knock a point off right there.  However, I am man enough to admit that he’s good in this film… so… I’ll put that complaint on the back burner.

Also, a lot of the actors in the film have now cropped up on TV shows.  They are all excellent… and it’s not the film’s fault.  This is my problem!  I see the handwriting expert and think “Hey, it’s Larry David’s doctor!!!”.  This is my problem.  For example, in this specific case, the actor who plays the handwriting expert is an excellent old guy.  He is brilliant in this and Curb.  He improves the film.  Therefore this negative is my problem!  For me to live with and get over!!!

The end.  It’s kind of unsatisfying… but again, not really a fault of the film.  More a fault of reality!!!  I’ll also call a negative at a great scare towards the end which turns out to be a cinematic, story-telling trick.  The kind of scare a horror film throws at you when it just SUDDENLY SCREAMS REALLY LOUDLY in a quiet bit!  Ha ha!  But the scare in this film is at least carried out with some panache.  And if I was gonna re-cut the film I’d leave the section in… so, really, how much of a negative do I consider it?

So…  who was the Zodiac killer?  The film puts enough circumstantial evidence forward for their prime suspect – enough for me to buy into it.  However, having read around the case the whole thing is a bit of a minefield.  DNA evidence here, fingerprints there.  I think, to be honest, it’s all too long ago to ever get a handle on now… unless some new evidence is one day uncovered.

Hmmmm.  So, a score, a score…

Zodiac – 9/10

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