Unsung Masterpiece: ‘Zodiac’
I’m just going to go ahead and throw this out there.
David Fincher’s Zodiac may be the greatest cinematic address of the 9/11 disaster released in the decade since the attacks.
Not simply for the unnerving sense of hanging dread that he drapes over 1960s San Francisco as the Zodiac Killer picks off citizens without method and without purpose, though that is on-point and expertly realized. No, it’s more for the depiction of what happens after the shock and terror is over, once the ash settles on the ground and the monster retreats back into the darkness, leaving dedicated yet clueless boy scouts to flail about in the dark in a vain attempt to find it. Zodiac is less concerned with the terror itself than with the long, soul-sucking denouement that follows, a denouement we still stand in the midst of all these years after those attacks on New York City. The film is a masterclass on horror without catharsis, on the empty path that may lay ahead if we pursue our all-too-human lust for justice and our obsessive need to hunt down and destroy the monsters that lurk in the shadows.
Of course, those themes cannot be effectively explored if the terror itself is not vividly realized. The Zodiac killings as depicted in the film are some of the most disturbing murders ever committed to celluloid. They consist of fairly little onscreen blood and gore, but the chaos of it, the senseless and sudden ending of lives is filmed in a way that literally makes you sick. Two of these scenes stand out as among the greatest-ever cinematic offings. The opening scene, where the Zodiac plugs a pair of hapless youths in their car on Lover’s Lane, all to the ethereal rhythms of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” is a show-stopper, a stunning display of technique that immediately gets the viewer on board. A later assault on an attractive young couple on a sunny day by the lake is gut-churningly tense and an ultimately merciless mash-up of gorgeous cinematography and animalistic slaughter. These are acts of heinous evil, and by watching them we are able to understand the determination of the dogged investigators who hunt down the mysterious murderer at the risk of their lives, their families, and their sanity. Jake Gyllenhall is surprisingly edgy as a nerdy cartoonist turned into obsessive hunter, and he’ll risk his family life to see his mission through. Mark Ruffalo also does his usual excellent work as a very good cop drained of his life force by the empty search, his sense of identity and self-worth decaying over time in a painful mosaic of missions unaccomplished.
It’s in the story of these pursuers, not the killer, that the film finds its disquieting soul. Fincher, ever the keen film scholar, knows the conventions of the serial killer genre. He created one of the most notable films the genre has to offer in Seven. But while he skillfully uses certain tropes to set the table and introduce his monster, he dangerously throws them out the window down the home stretch. Terror gives way to a kind of empty quiet. The killings stop, the killer vanishes, and after a time most of those involved opt to simply go on with their lives, content with the calm at the expense of justice. This is a dangerous place to take a film because A) it discards the killer-hunting momentum of the first half, and B) it really confuses the audience as to whether they should side with the cartoonist as he obsessively hunts for the killer’s identity, or the rest of the Bay Area as it opts for peace after a fairly brief period of madness.
To hunt down the monster with the risk of further, more personal carnage, or to hold your guns and try to get you own house in order after being so mercilessly attacked?
Never before has there been an hour-long denouement in a serial killer flick. But that is Fincher’s mission. He is an obsessive filmmaker exploring the nature of obsession, his exploration made all the more powerful by the fact that hunting down a ruthless murderer is a worthy and admirable goal, even though the hunters seem more concerned with completing a puzzle than avenging murdered innocents. But what if the hunt doesn’t end? What if all there is at the end of the tunnel is old smoke and cold ruins and more questions? Unlike the worlds of C.S.I. and Law and Order, our world doesn’t have have a fail-safe procedural process for finding and punishing the monsters. I’ve often thought that the reason we are fascinated by serial killers is that they present us with a clear encapsulation of all the more mysterious evils that lurk on the periphery. When we find such a concentration of darkness, we are driven to capture or destroy it in an effort to keep the light on for another night, to keep the monsters at bay. But what happens when the monsters will not be captured? And what happens when we don’t know whether or not to stop trying?
These are weighty and certainly not comforting issues, and you’ll rarely find them more quietly and disturbingly probed than in Fincher’s methodical look at a dark little period of American history that never found a proper way to end.