Blog Directory CineVerse: A good film born under a bad sign

A good film born under a bad sign

Monday, January 11, 2021

Perhaps the finest film about serial killers and related police procedurals/investigations made since The Silence of the Lambs, David Fincher’s Zodiac serves as an enthralling exercise – one that stays true to the facts, historical records, and period details while also expertly telling a story cinematically, showcasing a skill and craftsmanship that lesser filmmakers cannot emulate. Our CineVerse group pulled out the files and pored over the clues to learn what makes this movie tick. Here’s our take (to listen to a recording of our group discussion of Zodiac, click here):

What did you find different, unexpected, surprising, or fulfilling about Zodiac, especially compared to other serial killer films and police procedurals?

  • It’s less concerned with asking and answering the question “who was the Zodiac killer” than it is with addressing how these crimes happened, why they happened, and the people that were affected by them. You could come to the conclusion of the film and be frustrated by a lack of true resolution, as the killer is never verifiably identified or brought to justice, and, like gray Smith, we are left in doubt. But the movie can still thoroughly satisfy as an exercise in the process of trying to complete a puzzle and admiring how the pieces fit together, despite several pieces missing.
  • Zodiac sidesteps hyperbole and stylistic exaggeration. The director doesn’t indulge in shootouts, chase scenes, explosions, or overly gori-fied violence. While the murders are depicted with bone-chilling realistic accuracy, they aren’t amplified for dramatic effect as they would be in a horror film. In fact, most of the serial killer violence occurs in the first half of the film, leaving us to focus more intently on the aftermath of each crime and the police and newspaper investigations. When analyzed in retrospect, not much actually happens in Zodiac other than people talking, asking a lot of questions, making phone calls, and taking notes.
    • Instead of over-inflating things, Fincher and crew try to stay accurate to the facts of what we know, focusing on extremely fine details (reproducing, with admirable authenticity, for example, the look, fashion, and culture of the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom), consulting with anyone alive who had been affiliated with the case, and engaging in many retakes to get the perfect shot.
  • As Roger Ebert posited, the movie follows the template of a classic newspaper film, such as All The President’s Men, and we accompany the investigators closely as they follow up on every clue, lead, and dead-end. We also see the inner workings of a busy metropolitan newspaper and how the editorial team makes decisions regarding how to treat and publish the Zodiac news and letters.
  • The characters as depicted are inherently human, limited, and flawed. Consider Graysmith, who takes on this case as a personal cause at the expense of his own family and appears to be naïve and tunnel vision about the possible consequences on his safety and mental health. Think about Avery, as well, who had to endure years of investigating the Zodiac killer only to come to a fruitless and in which he’s removed from the case, which seems to come as a relief.
  • The entire undertaking is quite impressive, considering that so much is left unresolved about the true Zodiac killings. Fincher and company decided to tackle this story, despite not knowing for sure how many total murders the serial killer was responsible for or who the serial killer truly was. Additionally, the filmmakers wanted to be sensitive to the survivors of these crimes and honorable to the memory of those murdered, without exaggerating or exploiting matters. That’s not an easy line to walk in a film genre where audiences demand gripping suspense, eye-opening violence, and resolution by the dénouement.

This film is segmented into three primary acts. Can you identify each act in the style/approach imbued within each?

  1. The first act concerns the serial killer’s impact on the media, as represented through our introduction to Gray Smith and Avery. As Village Voice critic Nathan Lee wrote: “Part one climaxes with the rupturing of the media’s sense of its own inviolability. The zodiac sends a letter, and a swatch of blood-soaked fabric, directly to Avery.” In this first part, the filmmakers employ the color yellow – a lighter hue that exemplifies the naïveté we in the public have with the Zodiac and representing a faded time in history.
  2. The second part becomes more of a police procedural in which the authorities thoroughly investigate the crimes, clues, and suspects. The message of the second part is “the limits of law enforcement, the lunge and parry of a police procedural destined to go unresolved,” wrote Lee. Debatably, the primary color at work in part two is light brown or beige, mundane colors that signify the hard, meticulous, and frustrating work that investigators have to do.
  3. Part three underscores the personal journey and obsession of Graysmith, who is driven maniacally to uncover the truth and pore through endless bits of information. “It is only here, nearly two hours into the tale, that a recognizable human story enters the picture. Delaying that contact is one of Zodiac’s shrewdest maneuvers; by the time we’re dropped into Graysmith’s drama, we’re almost as overloaded with information as he is,” adds Lee. Blue is arguably the color that dominates this third section, perhaps symbolizing the true blue nature of Graysmith’s cause and passion.

Films that Zodiac reminds us of

  • M
  • Dirty Harry
  • All the President’s Men
  • JFK
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Copycat
  • Spotlight

Other films directed by David Fincher

  • Seven
  • The Game
  • Fight Club
  • Panic Room
  • The Social Network
  • Gone Girl 
  • Mank

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