by Jared Gores
Talk about tailgating.
(SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains some spoilers for the film Zodiac.)
I have a love-hate relationship with the Oscars. Or, perhaps more accurately, I have a love-to-hate relationship with the Oscars. Looking back on last year’s Best Picture nominees just makes me mad. Granted, 2008 was a weak year in cinema, but those were hardly the five best films. I could embark on a vitriolic rant about why The Reader sucks, but today I’ve honed in on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button–not so much because it’s unworthy, but because it is so less worthy of Oscar recognition than director David Fincher’s film released the year prior. Zodiac was completely ignored by the Academy when it came time to recognize the best in film for 2007. We’re talking about Fincher’s most critically-acclaimed film (and I would say that it is his best film, as well). So what happened? Well, let’s investigate.
Box Office Woes
Zodiac received strong reviews when it opened on March 2, 2007, but it came in second at the box office with $13.4 million behind the wanna-be comedy Wild Hogs. Zodiac‘s opening weekend admissions were the lowest of any Fincher film up to that point. In its second week, sales dropped nearly 50%, and the film fell to fifth place over the weekend (it didn’t help that 300 destroyed the competition). In the end, Zodiac made $33 million domestically and about $85 million worldwide. That’s not much profit when the production budget ranged anywhere from $65-$75 million. So why was Zodiac a box office disappointment? Fincher’s reasoning was that the film was mismarketed to the Saw crowd when the film was actually much more of a drama. And it’s true Paramount marketed Zodiac as a serial killer thriller/horror film in TV ads leading up to its release, but I’m not convinced this is the only answer. I doubt the Saw crowd read reviews indicating Zodiac wasn’t a serial killer film and decided to skip it. More likely, false advertising helps explain the precipitous drop-off in its second week based on word-of-mouth. So why didn’t people care about Zodiac in the first place? Could it have been market saturation? Were moviegoers tired of dark, violent films? Saw III more than doubled Zodiac‘s business several months earlier, and its DVD was released late in January ’07. There was also the DVD release of The Black Dahlia in late December ’06 and the theatrical releases of The Number 23 and Hannibal Rising less than a month before Zodiac.
But my hunch is that the film was simply released in the wrong season. Zodiac was originally set to be released in late 2006 for Oscar consideration, but Fincher and Paramount disagreed over editing and runtime (which seemed to still be a point of contention months later when a studio lackey asked me what I didn’t like about the film after an audience test screening in February ’07), which resulted in a March release date. For me, the Oscar ceremony–held the week before Zodiac‘s release–signals the temporary halt of intellectually stimulating cinema. I find that the spring is generally dominated by more escapist entertainment. In this respect, Zodiac had three major knocks against it: (a) it’s detail-heavy (b) it’s very long and (c) it’s a period piece. You know what other film has those three elements? Benjamin Button, which had a December release date. Zodiac‘s audience wasn’t going to the movies in March. Had Zodiac been released during Oscar season (October-December), I suspect it would have garnered at least a few nominations–most likely adapted screenplay, film editing, and cinematography; with an outside chance at director and supporting actor (Mark Ruffalo or Robert Downey, Jr). Instead, Zodiac was shunned, which is truly a shame.
Reborn on DVD
Fortunately, the film has not been forgotten. Like most of Fincher’s work, appreciation for Zodiac has grown considerably over time, especially among the online film community. In fact, Zodiac has even landed on a number of Best-of-the-Decade lists. Admittedly, I didn’t love the film when I first saw it at that packed pre-release screening on the UW-Madison campus. I thought it was pretty good, but found the narrative protracted, Gyllenhaal miscast, and the tone a bit too relaxed. Nevertheless, I constantly found myself drawn back to it. Zodiac fascinated me like few films had in recent years. When it was released on Blu-ray about a year ago, I immediately added it to my collection. In the past year, I’ve re-watched Zodiac more than any other film. While I still think Gyllenhaal was not the best choice to play Robert Graysmith, I now find few other faults with the film. It’s really a work of art.
One of Fincher’s greatest accomplishments with Zodiac is his ability to immerse the viewer in its time period. The Zodiac Killer’s reign of terror spanned from 1968 to the early ’70s in Northern California–mainly the San Francisco Bay Area. A master of production design, Fincher expertly recreates this setting. He does this from the moment the film starts by tossing the old Paramount & Warner Bros. title cards on the screen. Despite his use of digital video (which I will address later), Fincher wants to evoke 1970s cinema. Within minutes of the opening murder, the viewer arrives in the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle. The rows of paper-covered desks and the luminous ceiling of fluorescent bulbs from one end of the room to the other immediately recall the newsroom of Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 masterpiece, All the President’s Men. This is a fitting comparison because Pakula’s Watergate film is what Zodiac most resembles, both narratively and tonally.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr. sift through evidence.
Fincher’s film is also authentic in its mise-en-scène. The period detail is simply impeccable. Fincher has gone to great lengths to re-create the killer’s crime scenes. The location of the cab driver’s murder, for instance, was digitally animated to match that of the real thing. Fincher also uses digitally animated aerial sweeps of the bay for establishing shots because the waterfront has changed so much since the 1970s. His attention to detail is virtually unmatched. Hell, he even asked his props team to print perfect duplicates of 1970s Chronicle newspapers to have in the newsroom scenes. Of course, it’s one thing to get the details right; it’s quite another to match the atmosphere. Yet Fincher succeeds here, as well. First, with music: Fincher adorns the film with fitting tunes. His smartest move in this respect is to avoid music that has been overused. Instead, he has selected familiar tunes that blend into the narrative. For example, Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” sets an eerie, psychedelic mood for the film’s opening double murder. Another great example–and perhaps my favorite time transition in recent memory–is Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” playing over a time-lapse of the construction of the Transamerica Pyramid. What’s more, Fincher’s color palette reflects the location and the time period. Fincher and his DP, Harris Savides, harness earth tones, which appropriately match the style of the 70s; however, they also shoot a lot of scenes in bright sunshine, which at first seems to be at odds with the dark nature of the story. Yet this juxtaposition is fitting for the investigation of a serial killer who made his ugly mark in the lovely Bay Area, and it therefore establishes an odd uneasiness throughout the picture.
Like its titular character, the film itself is elusive. This is a compliment. Zodiac refuses to be easily categorized. The film qualifies as a “serial killer” film in only the most superficial sense–Fincher has no interest in examining Zodiac. In fact, the killer and the people suspected to be him appear on screen very little. Keep in mind that the Zodiac attacks end at the one-hour mark, and the film continues to unfold for another 100 minutes. Fincher even goes out of his way to inform the viewer that this isn’t a serial killer movie by playing with audience expectations. Let me explain: the film opens in a very horror-esque manner. One of the opening shots is from the point of view of the driver in a car as he/she passes a row of suburban homes. Are we looking through the killer’s eyes à la John Carpenter’s Halloween? The car stops, and a teenage boy runs out to the passenger window and begins addressing the driver. Suddenly, we cut to a shot of the driver: a teenage girl. Clearly, not the Zodiac. The next few scenes play out like a typical horror picture. The two drive past a busy fast food restaurant, and the girl suggests they go somewhere more quiet. So they stop the car in a darkened park. As the girl scoots over to the boy, firecrackers suddenly go off next to the car. This startles us. But the two laugh about it and sit in silence for a moment. Suddenly a dark-colored car pulls in behind them. Who’s that? But before they can really worry, the car drives off. They relax a moment. Just then, another car comes down the road and pulls up behind them with its headlights shining at the teenagers. Is this the same car? Is this the girl’s husband? A man gets out of the car and walks over to the passenger door with a flashlight. The boy assumes the man is a cop and tells the girl to get out her wallet. As the man approaches the car, the boy says, “Man, you really creeped us out.” The man unloads a round of bullets into the unsuspecting teens. The Zodiac strikes.
This initial murder scene is pretty much exactly what Zodiac‘s trailer and TV ads promised. But the next murder sequence, which occurs about 15 minutes later in the film, plays out very differently. Like the first, two young adults are driving to a remote location and are then seen relaxing together. But here the scene diverges from our expectations. The killer arrives (in broad daylight), gives them directions that they follow, and then he kills them. There are no moments of surprise or tension. Fincher drains the drama out of the murder. In fact, it barely registers as a murder scene at all. The third murder (10 minutes later in the film) occurs out of nowhere when a cab passenger suddenly shoots the driver, and it’s over in less than a minute. It is clear that Fincher has been toying with us. The first murder scene was a tease, a way to pull us in. And once he has captured our interest, he shifts the film’s focus. He doesn’t want us to get excited about these murders. He may even want us to be ashamed for having been entertained by the first killing. It’s a nifty little sleight of hand that encourages the viewer to look past the killer and get to the heart of the story. The killer is but an entry point into the examination of (a) the true-crime police investigation, (b) obsession, and (c) communication.
Zodiac works great as a straight narrative. It has a fascinating, bifurcated story structure–it’s a police procedural first and then becomes a journalist’s investigation for the truth. This is a daring move that runs the risk of killing the viewer’s interest when the second act opens, especially since a lot of what happens in the journalist portion involves Graysmith double-checking the work that the police detectives did earlier in the film. What makes the story work as a whole, though, is its overriding theme of obsession. Inspector Toschi (Ruffalo) and newspaper cartoonist Graysmith are both driven by a desire to solve the case. Toschi questions his obsession with Zodiac and believes it has clouded his understanding of the facts and impeded his ability to be successful. Graysmith, on the other hand, never questions his obsession with the case and believes his expansive study of the facts will yield answers.
Focus on Communication
But subtly, Fincher addresses several other themes–all of which fall under the umbrella of what I’ll call communication. The first and most obvious of these is the effect of mass media on the public. Fincher spends a significant amount of screen time with the Chronicle editors as they decide whether or not to publish the Zodiac’s letters in the newspaper. Does it set a dangerous precedent? Is it newsworthy? Does it have the potential to scare the people? These are all questions that they must address in their decision. At one point, a letter includes a threat to pick off schoolchildren with a rifle as they exit the school bus. It is decided that the Chronicle will publish the letter but take out the threat to children, as it would likely cause mass panic. On the whole, Fincher portrays the newspaper industry in a positive light. He casts a far more critical eye, perhaps obviously, on individuals who use the media for their own benefit. The main perpetrator here being celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox), who pretends to care about the killer’s mental health but is clearly more interested in getting on camera. At one point in the film, Belli receives a letter from the killer at his home, and, instead of going to the police, he contacts the Chronicle. Relatedly, Fincher addresses the copycat letters from Zodiac imitators and those who try to confess to killing. There’s a celebrity element to the Zodiac, and Fincher clearly despises this, which probably helps explain why he and screenwriter James Vanderbilt de-emphasize the killer as a character early on in the film. There’s also a scene where the Vallejo mayor calls for a televised press conference to blame the police for failing to catch the killer. Reporter Paul Avery (RDJ) mentions that she’s about to run for governor, and this move will probably help her get the public’s vote. The selfish desires of individuals undermine the legitimacy of the news media.
A second theme that Fincher examines is the contentious relationship between the police and the news media. The two are often investigating the same incidents, but their approaches to the people and facts involved and their respective methods of information dissemination are quite different. Fincher paints the interaction of these two institutions as strained. There are times where the two work together (e.g. the letters sent to the Chronicle) and times where there is a clear breakdown of communication (e.g. Avery investigates a possible lead on the case and takes his findings to television before talking with SFPD). An unlikely union is eventually struck when Toschi agrees to help Graysmith conduct his own investigation. The two will continue to be at odds, though, because their professions use different standards of proof. This impasse is displayed when Graysmith delivers a pretty convincing case to Toschi about the identity of the killer. Toschi still has reservations. Graysmith says, “I’m not asking you as a cop.” Toschi responds, “But I am a cop. I can’t prove this.” To which Graysmith replies, “Just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it’s not true.” “Easy, Dirty Harry,” warns Toschi. This last line is particularly fitting because the Dirty Harry character is based on Toschi, and Harry, unlike Toschi, had no problem bending the rules to catch criminals. (Aside: this is also just awesome dialogue.)
The third, and, in my opinion, most interesting theme explored in Zodiac is how the investigative abilities of the police were limited by available technology and departmental organization. The investigation of the Zodiac Killer is severely hampered by the fact that the information obtained by the three police departments on the case is never centralized. It’s not until Graysmith examines the evidence amassed by all of the detectives that some key connections are made about the suspects. Often, case information is physically exchanged in file folders. At one point in the film, a police detective at another branch says they don’t have telefax yet, so they’ll have to send the evidence in the mail. Later, two police officers say they may have let the killer slip by because the description of the suspect sent out over dispatch was incorrect–and corrected too late. Moreover, the Lake Berryessa police department didn’t follow procedure in sealing the crime scene. Who knows what clues they missed? And let’s not forget that DNA testing was not available in the early 1970s. Therefore, the key element in the Zodiac case were the killer’s handwriting samples, which failed to match that of the main suspect. Fincher’s emphasis on these deficiencies in the investigation seem to point to the argument that, had the case been better organized, it could have been solved; additionally, the lack of a resolution in the case points to how vital technological advancements are to effective policing.
Of course, Fincher didn’t limit himself to three or four themes. Zodiac has many layers, and every new viewing offers further insight.
A Landmark in the DV Revolution
The future of motion picture photography.
Zodiac‘s importance lies not only in its artistic qualities but also in its technical achievements. Over the last decade, the film industry has begun to turn toward digital video as a viable format for recording movies. The main reason for the interest in digital video has been economics: film is very expensive, and digital video is cheap. The problem has been that digital video often lacks the quality of film. DV cameras continue to improve, though, and the technology has now reached the point where it can match that of film. Zodiac is a case in point. Except for the slow-motion murders, Zodiac was shot entirely on the Thomson Viper camera. If you didn’t know it was shot on DV, you probably couldn’t tell the difference, which, in my opinion, is a good thing. I have never been a big supporter of shooting on DV unless it can replicate the look of film. Occasionally, narratives lend themselves to a DV aesthetic (e.g. David Lynch’s Inland Empire), but I cannot say that for period pieces. The best recent example of a film that should not have been shot on DV is Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. While his grainy DV style has worked for Mann in the past (namely, Collateral and Miami Vice), it does not translate to the 1930s gangster era. The look of the film completely pulls the viewer out of the story. Public Enemies was a story that needed to be shot on film–or, if not film, then DV shot to look like film. As far as I’m concerned, Fincher is leading the pack of filmmakers who have adopted DV. Zodiac was the first digital film that truly looked like it was shot on film stock. It has a richness and clarity that hadn’t yet been achieved with any other DV film, which is one reason why it should have received an Oscar nomination for cinematography. Fortunately, the Academy corrected itself the following year when Benjamin Button, which was also shot on the Viper, landed a cinematography nom (its cinematography is really the only element worthy of Oscar recognition).
It remains, however, that Zodiac was overlooked by the Academy, and not only for its cinematography. This is a film that defies easy categorization. Fincher sets out to deliver something of meaning; something with a compelling, challenging narrative; something that will last. And he wildly succeeds. I’d even venture to say Zodiac is All the President’s Men for a new generation.
Now I can’t prove that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.