I loved this movie. Caveats: a) it’s my kind of film, and my reaction is horribly skewed given that it’s a very long, information-saturated, talky police procedural, more interested in the search for than the revelation of truth. b) There are one or two moments where a stray filmmaking detail (a Donovan song, a bit part played by a hip young actor) drew me out of the film. But more often we sink into the world constructed onscreen, and the almost three-hour running time flew by. I’d gladly have watched this for a year on HBO–it’s a film I was sad to see end, and highly recommend.

I’d really like to talk more, to wrestle with it a bit, but I don’t really want to tip my hand before I hear some other reactions. I imagine the film’s many nods to ‘seventies cinema deserve some engagement (particularly its Pakula-ic attention to offices and the diminishment of the human against richly-textured institutional backgrounds); as interesting are the nods (in script and art design) to a whole rich history of crime films.

But I’m particularly taken by the film as a kind of step-by-step revision and almost refutation of Seven, or of that approach to the serial killer: nihilistic, crushingly contained in its sense of plot (and plot’s implications for the characters running about), casually certain about the workings of the unconscious (for villain and protagonist) in ways that turn desire and depravity into thrilling yet empty spectacles. Mind you, I loved and love Seven, but I think this film is far grander in scope and ambition. In particular, I was struck by the violence in this film–only a few instances, and they are gut-wrenching–wholly empathetic with the victim (whereas most serial killer films consume victims as mere signifiers of dastardly mastery).

And I found the respective central (and peripheral) characters’ relationship to the Zodiac killer to be infused with a determination to wrest some kind of purpose and meaning out of the events. Manohla Dargis tossed off a phrase, something like how resolutely alive this film about a killer seemed to be. I couldn’t agree more: the villain remains a cypher not just to play a mindfuck game with the audience’s narrative explanations (‘though it does that masterfully, as well). More to the point, I think death is the specter around and against which the characters throw themselves–the Zodiac–these characters come most alive struggling to make sense of how the stars are lining up. And the conclusion’s ambiguity, the end-titles’ calculated displacement of even the small comfort offered up by a final face-to-face with the potential main suspect in the last scene, struck me as a kind of demand placed on the audience. Making sense really matters.

Again, this is so very much the kind of narrative I dig that I wonder at my enthusiasm; a second viewing might dampen my pleasure, but… highly recommended.

17 thoughts on “Zodiac

  1. Has anyone else seen this? I just watched it today, and I’d like to hear some other reactions. For me, it was everything Mike said and more. Just some brief reactions: 1) I can’t recall a movie with as many fine performances. Every character, however peripheral, if interesting. And Mark Ruffalo should play Peter Falk in any Columbo remakes; by the end of the movie, he IS Columbo. 2) Some really fine cinematography. My favorite shot is a soaring bird’s eye view of traffic on the Golden Gate bridge as the bridge seems to disappear into the fog. 3) This movie wonderfully subverts the CSI take on murder investigations. The investigators — even the Zodiac killer — are all human and make mistakes, and the jurisdictional conflicts play a central role in the problems that the police have. It could only have been better if David Caruso was one of the victims. 4) They all had it wrong: Chloe Sevigny was obviously the Zodiac killer. Damn, she scared me every time she looked up through her huge glasses.

  2. me no like this film. me find boring. me think reynolds & chris like strange thing. me no understand.


    premise: mike says very nice and intelligent things about this film, things that make me understand fully why he’s so crazy about it. chris, i don’t know well enough to understand why he should share mike’s enthusiasm. once when we were in grad school i went to a novel reading group of which mike was a member. the book was atwood’s alias grace. although i had read it with pleasure, i thought atwood has slipped a little bit on the various voices. i mentioned this, and mike suggested that the apparent inconsistency of some voices was precisely the point, for some reason or another. i still believe that atwood could have been more careful, but i’ve grown to appreciate mike’s preternatural generosity with textual glitches, mix-ups, contaminations, assimilations, confusions, and various other messes.

    okay, so this, er, thriller, starts off with a bunch of brutal homicides, which set up what promises to be an exciting cat-and-mouse chase. which, as reynolds points out, doesn’t happen. which of course is all right. apart from the fact that i really wanted to know who was zodiac (isn’t that desire the very point of the film?), i see how it may be interesting to frustrate this desire not only in the characters but in the viewer as well (frustration of the desire also is the point of the film. so, fine).

    but. i have the impression that the film doesn’t quite digest the book it’s based on and gets ensnared in plot details that are uninteresting/confusing/burdensome and that should never have left the editing floor. for instance: the film introduces the book’s writer, played by jake gyllenhaal, at the very beginning — he gets the movie’s first 5-10 mins. but it is not until half-way through that we understand what the heck he’s doing in this film. in fact, he’s absolutely essential to it. except, maybe, he should have been introduced when he actually starts doing something? when his presence is interesting and relevant?

    and why does he have one son but then you discover he has two? movies lose me when they do shit like this. it seems to me to be artistic incontinence. if the second son doesn’t play any part, drop him. it doesn’t matter he is in the book.

    there’s a lot of this in this film. say, the robert downey jr character — chewed up by the film machine and spat out without yielding a milliliter of juice. (okay, i’m being unfair. but maybe you’ll see what i mean. he gets a lot of screen presence. not that i don’t like him).

    another thing that bothered me is that even the tiniest roles are given to known and recognizable actors. this, too, seems to me to be artistic incontinence. when john carroll lynch appeared i felt like groaning. how many villains has this guy played??? i had the same groaning reaction with dermot mulroney and clea duvall. i know mike will say this is the whole point (because he hates identification), but how about giving the rest of us a little bit of help on the road towards suspension of disbelief?

    to summarize, here’s where i saw artistic incontinence: a) too many unnecessary/useless/distracting details that are presumably there because they are in the book (another one: what’s with all the bruises on clea duvall’s body??) b) too many name actors.

    which of course can open up a whole conversation about the utilization of recognizable actors vs. good but not recognizable ones in american films, and the alienating/identifying dyad each choice sets in motion.

    chris, i had glasses like those too in the 70s/80s. didn’t we all?

  3. Well I don’t know anyone on this blog except Mike, and that is part of what is interesting about reading reactions to movies. Sometimes a posting conforms to a pattern I have built up in my head about that particular blogger from previous posts, and sometime it doesn’t. Trying to figure out why someone hated a film that you thought they would like (Arnab and ‘Casino Royale’ for example) forces you to re-evaluate your own view of the film (which played twice on flights I have taken in the last five days).

    In any case, two comments about why I liked ‘Zodiac.’ Complexity and attentiveness to detail is not incontinence. There are certainly plenty of lazy films where inconsistencies and random details are a sign of sloppy, undisciplined film-making, but this is not one of them. Zodiac manages to keep the messy lives of a dozen characters in focus over a decade, all the time trying to piece together a murder mystery. It never condescends to the viewer or takes short cuts to give us a satisfying emotional punch. It is, I have to say, the very model of disciplined film-making. For some reason this reminds me of ‘Syriana’ about which plenty of smart people that I respect have complained that the movie is too complicated. Yeah, well life can be complicated, and the pleasures of a movie can often be found in navigating in uncertain terrain, and being treated as a grown up by the writers and the director.

    This is a movie about obsession, and about how obsession destroys – not in big, dramatic ways, but in small, very personal ways – the lives of three people. Tracing the different forms that obsession takes, and the different ways that Downey, Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal handle it, is the real strength of this movie. Note the scenes when two of them will come together (Gyllenhaal and Downey on the houseboat, Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal at the house of the former); one of the pair is at a different place in the cycle of obsession and that imbalance has real dramatic power.

  4. chris, i agree that complexity and attention to detail are not incontinence! indulgence in unnecessary details is, and that’s what i meant. plus the issue of the name actors.

    i am not sure i’d say this is a particularly complex film, either. yes, it is about obsession more than about finding the killer, and in that sense it frustrates the expectations of the viewer in a way that may be interesting. but what interesting and complex things does it say about obsession? that it can destroy? it doesn’t even tell us where ruffalo’s, downey’s, and gyllenhaal’s obsession comes from! why are they so obsessed? i have no idea.

    what seems more interesting to me is the way in which the film plays with the audience — as you and mike well notice. but, and this was my suggestion, that would have been more effective had the film been shorter, less self-indulgent, more rigorously composed, and with fewer name actors.


    now, could you guys PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE sign this petition in support of yet another bunch of abused university janitors, and pass it around? nova southeastern university is a few miles from miami, and the janitors’ unionization efforts was inspired by that of the university of miami janitors. except, things seeem to be going terribly wrong. the petition text explains all:



  5. I’ve been away, so I haven’t been keeping up here–sorry. A couple quick responses:

    First, no one’s posted on 300? I’m in no rush to see it, and this comment doesn’t really belong here, but this review of the film has a good number of fun, memorable quotes to serve as competition for Denby’s fine line about Zodiac which John cited.

    Second, nice one, Jeff.

    Third, in a time when so many in the governing sectors of our country–and endemic throughout American culture?–suffer from a surplus of certainty, I think a film about the drive to know which ceaselessly re-centers our attention on the problems of knowing (and the dangers of obsession about what we think we know) seems more than narratologically inviting, it seems downright subversive. (And, again–I think Fincher’s painstaking attention to detail against the drive for neat closure resembles Pakula’s Parallax View and Coppola’s Conversation, but bred with some Altman–the closed hermetic psychological spaces of the former two couple with Altman’s keen eye for communal, cultural connections.)

    Third-and-a-half, the detail is part of the lure. As in Seven or name-any-serial-killer (or, as Chris noted, any CSI-inflected crime) thriller, there’s no such thing as an irrelevant detail. Every thing’s a sign which points us toward the killer’s (or the plot’s) masterful completeness. The flood of information here serves to situate the film generically–this is what these kinds of movies do–and then to drown us in possibility. Watching the film, if we get caught up, is an exercise in decoding, the whole movie a Zodiac we’re trying to parse.

    The film also very neatly sidesteps the casual certainties of “period” detail, using a wholly-enclosed set of art-production signs to signify a whole culture’s meaning. Instead of saying–oh, right, the ’70s means X, or San Francisco/California stand for Y, we are seeing frustrating possibility everywhere–the movie posters on both Graysmith’s and the theater-owner’s respective walls, as one example I kept fixating on. Yet I do think the ‘game’ of detail serves to get us thinking more expansively, beyond the self and to the culture. The fact that the ‘virus’ of obsession moves between three different characters, with different psychologies and seemingly-varied (possible) motives–we can’t neatly pin down the obsessive ‘type’ and dislocate ourselves or the cultural context from the disease.

    Fourth, I absolutely agree with Gio about the recognizable actors. Lynch didn’t bother me–in fact, I thought he was quite wonderful, right down to the way he casually crossed his legs–but there isn’t a tiny role that slides by without some hipster putting on her or his thrift-store threads, and it was flat distracting. Most of the film’s design sucked me into its world-building, but these stray moments jarred. And even I am not going to do any logical backflips trying to make them make sense.

  6. Okay, but complaining about a ton of potentially-meaningful details in a mystery is like complaining about the bombast in an opera. (Why is that Don Giovanni always bellowing?)

    And some of the details you complain about (the decentering of protagonists) seem crucial to the movie’s goals, while others (the proliferation of kids) didn’t strike me as mistakes but as part of the movie’s purposeful collapsing of time. (The friend I went with literally exclaimed “What?!” when he’d read the little date markers between scenes, telling us we’d just jumped three years.)

    The defense rests, too. Anyone else seen this yet?

  7. [prosecution notes, leaked:]

    entirely meaningless and over-indulgent details:
    initial scene with JJ getting kid ready for school; many later scenes with kid in which JJ shelters kid from knowledge of zodiac (the film focuses on the protectiveness rather than on JJ’s increasing obsession); over-descriptiveness of various police districts, with lingering on each dept’s personality; anthony edwards (does he have to disappear so entirely half-way through?); AE walking into building’s lobby hugging wife; couple that breaks the first code, with caption (!) even though they have exactly that one meaningless scene…

    clunky: how, in spite of large screen presence, JJ is totally estraneous to movie action till half-way-through movie; how you get a sense of some characters’ ruined marriage and no sense of the others’ (where is RDJ’s wife?); RDJ’s over-the-top flamboyancy; the fact that MR looks like columbo; JJ, miscasted.

  8. it is strange to pick up on a substantive discussion 5 months after it ended–much easier to make smart-ass comments, but i guess i should try.

    i liked the film less than mike or chris but more than gio, whose principal objection to the film–that we don’t find out who the zodiac is–is as unimaginative as…wait for it…the style of football her national team plays. okay, so that’s not gio’s principal objection. what she really objects to is the plethora of detail, some of which she finds irrelevant. i think mike is right on–if he has been clever enough to anticipate my comments (i don’t bother reading his endless theses)–to point out that the details that don’t all add up or go anywhere is part of the point. not simply because it is a genre convention to have over-saturation of significance, but because in this particular story it places us as viewers in the position of graysmith: so many things are presented to us–which is signficant, which is not? the inability to make these distinctions is what drives graysmith to distraction. i was also less bothered by the casting for this reason: when a recognizable face shows up you expect it to play a more important role, which doesn’t always happen here (as a digression: the best use of casting to wrong-foot the audience in recent years is samuel jackson in deep blue sea).

    where i do agree, unwillingly, with the unimaginative italian, is that the film does not do enough to make the transformation of graysmith believable. unlike her, i think the initial scenes of graysmith as doting single dad are not extraneous–they help underline how far he’s fallen in his mania at the end, where he’s willing to live apart from his kids till he solves the story. however, the film does not explain why his interest in the zodiac is on a low simmer for 4 years and then suddenly hits a hard boil. the transformation in mark ruffalo’s detective is believable, as is that in downey jr’s paul avery (i read him as being exactly what he describes the zodiac as: a closeted homosexual), but not graysmith–paul avery is nasty to him and he turns into miss marple?

    these criticisms aside, it is a wonderfully made film. feels like half its length, and the cinematography is just breathtaking, as chris pointed out. i was also taken by the use of digital cameras–i wanted to find out more about this and read somewhere that the entire film was filmed in some new digital camera. the way in which light and shadow are different in these new digital formats than in film is really quite striking, and adds a texture all its own to films such as this. on the other hand, the light and the framing together also often reminded me of video games: the very wide frames, the slow point of view pans, the uncanny/unreal light and shadow–during night scenes the movie sometimes looked like a cutscene from an xbox game (especially the pre-credits sequence). i’d say that this more than anything else pulled me out of it from time to time. but this may be a symptom of not seeing it in a theater (though we do have one of those big widescreen monitors now).

    and chris, i didn’t really hate the new casino royale–i might re-watch it on a plane. i said it was crap, but what i disliked about it is that it is not a bond film, but just another action film–and in that genre there’s far better (bourne, jason bourne, for example). but, of course, it is much better than magnolia or after hours.

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