The Essential Series
The Essential Series is merely a way for me to account and write about films that hold a special place in my heart. They are films that I believe display an acute sense of filmmaking that provoke an emotional connection. They are also films that I have seen more than once, thereby giving me a chance to reflect on elements that I may have missed in my initial viewing.
Directed by David Fincher Screenplay by James Vanderbilt Based on Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked
Revisiting Zodiac is rarely an occurrence I plan ahead of time. It’s not a particularly uplifting film, but it’s one that grips me every time I watch it – few movies have such an effect on repeated viewings. There’s always something new to take out of it, making for one of the more rewarding experiences in my collection, and thereby prompting me to give it another viewing.
The notion of a serial killer and the terror he inflicts upon a select few is probably the least interesting way to view the film. This is largely because Fincher and company encapsulate a variety of different perspectives that make for an extremely layered and dense experience. Part police procedural, part thriller, part media study, part character study, Zodiac allows the audience to embrace the controlled chaos. It’s extremely smart in its narrative presentation, as the film’s large cast in introduced and fleshed out in compelling and thought-provoking ways. Take the introduction of Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), an important character to the whole of the narrative; he is not introduced until 30 minutes into the film. With him, he brings the police procedural aspect of the story to the forefront, despite the newspaper media characters (Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery) steering the film’s direction for the past half-hour. The two sides, media and law, meet in such an organic way, serving to highlight the precision of the screenwriting.
Vanderbilt, along with Fincher, illustrates an excellent method of lapsing time, wherein technique and writing flourish to create rich characters. In a restaurant, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is late for his date with Melanie (Chloe Sevigny). A bit absent minded, while still maintaining that straight-man gullibility, Graysmith notes that his friend Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) received an ominous tip that will lead him on the outskirts of San Francisco. As Robert discusses the situation with Melanie, they begin to realize the danger that Paul may be in. Melanie is cautiously fascinated by Robert’s conviction, and decides to take their meal to go as they wait for Paul’s call at Robert’s place. The scene wraps with Paul calling Robert and Melanie, early in the morning, with Melanie admitting that their date was one of the most interesting she has had.
Fast-forward, years into the timeline. Robert is now obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac. Like Avery, one can trace a similar downtrodden trajectory for Robert. And again, like Avery, Robert’s sense of time and space is disjointed. He has a meeting set with handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill (Philip Baker Hall), and is unaware of the distance between the two. Melanie, now his wife, makes him aware of that fact. As their relationship deteriorates under Robert’s growing obsession, Melanie recalls that first date – it was the date that never ended.
All this, of course, serves to highlight how the film is not focused on the murders themselves. Fincher instead uses Gyllenhaal in his most effective role. He’s obsessive, yes, but also grounded by emotions that are relatable to anyone. The sense of being close to something, to uncovering the truth about something mythical, is the sort of emotional pull that Fincher and Gyllenhaal effectively convey.
Harry Savides’ gorgeous cinematography is not merely icing on the cake, but an absolutely necessary component to creating the film’s incredibly foreboding atmosphere. Savides has displayed a keen knack for shooting California in interesting and eclectic ways – from the hazy Los Angeles in the recent Greenberg to the dimly-lit San Francisco in Zodiac. Interestingly enough, my favorite example of Savides’ technical prowess in Zodiac is in a scene that takes place indoors. Graysmith, believing to be on the cusp of retrieving proof regarding the Zodiac’s identity, meets with Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) – a confidant of the suspected. Here, the writing, visuals, and direction blend into the wickedly suspenseful. Graysmith follows Vaughn into his basement to retrieve posters that may have the Zodiac’s writing on it. Earlier in the film, we discover that the Zodiac has a basement – basements being a rarity in the California region during the time period. The suspense simmers. The basement is dimly lit, with a storm going on outside that makes every sound reverberate. Vaughn is positioned under one of the few lights in the basement. Graysmith distances himself, realizing that the situation could be more than he bargained for. The storm creates the illusion of foot-steps, Vaughn’s face is barely viewable in the dim lighting, and the fear escalates. So much going on in one scene, all brought together by writing and technique.
The attention to detail, the precision in filmmaking, and the fascinating approach to its already compelling subject matter is enough to make Zodiac a film worthy of praise. The film did not get the attention it ought to have received (it was a minor box office success, making barely enough to cover its budget), nor did it receive acclaim for larger awards bodies. But as I look back on it, rewatching the film every once in a while, I get wrapped up in what it provides – a compelling story with fleshed out characters and the technical prowess to complete the package.