Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Zodiac -- the price of obsession
Zodiac is an intensely captivating taut thriller from David Fincher (Se7en, Panic Room). Based on the book by Robert Graysmith, it presents a fictionalized account of the manhunt for the serial killer who terrorized San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. More than this, it provides a mesmerizing study of obsession and its consequences.
The movie opens with a young couple going out to a lover's lane area. When a car stops behind them, they are afraid but it turns out to be other punk kids having a little fun with them. When another vehicle, looking like a police car, stops behind them, they are spooked but it drives off. When it returns, and the man gets out, they are relieved to speak to a policeman . . . but only momentarily. This is a killer. And he kills the woman, leaving the man wounded but not dead. Apart from this violence, and two other brief killing scenes, the film is more psychologically frightening than violent.
When a later is sent to three San Francisco newspapers claiming credit for a later murder as well as this and another, the editors and police are unsure whether to believe the writer or not. But there are enough details known only to the police to make this credible. Along with the letter is a page written in code claiming to give the identity of the killer. This is the beginning of the hunt for the serial killer who was known as the Zodiac, after the use of this symbol in this code.
Present at this first meeting is reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist who is in the right place at the right time to be in on this first code. Avery is sent to do investigative reporting, while Graysmith is dismissed to work on his comics.
But Graysmith, a divorced single parent, is a puzzle-maniac, and this puzzle has him in its grip. When all the famous agencies (police, FBI, CIA, etc) cannot solve the puzzle, a pair of teachers does several days later. But this serves only to add fuel to the fire of Graysmith's interest.
As the murders continue over the course of months, the encoded letters continue. And as they do, Graysmith develops a budding relationship of sorts with Avery, after he shows him that he has solved the puzzle and others through library reading and research on cryptography. Also embroiled in the case is Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). Toschi and partner Inspector Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to one of the early murders, and then becomes obsessed with the Zodiac killings.
Zodiac is a dark movie, with moody cinematography. Fincher, a director with an eye for detail, catches the ambience of the times, even giving subtle references. The real-life Toschi was the inspiration for Steve McQueen's performance in Bullitt (1968) and in one-scene is sarcastically called Bullitt. In another, Graysmith is in a movie theater watching Dirty Harry, which was set in San Francisco with Inspector Dirty Harry Callahan on the trail of a serial-killer, Serpico -- modeled after Zodiac.
One extremely tense scene has Graysmith, by now pale and haunted, visiting Bob Vaughn who has information on the identity of the Zodiac. Apparently, the Zodiac, who lived in a house with a basement, hand-drew the movie posters and Graysmith wants more information on the "artist." When Vaughn admits that he, not the other person, drew the poster, the air chills. Graysmith is visibly scared. When Vaughn offers to show him the originals in his basement, Graysmith chokes out: "Not many people have basements in California." When he does follow him slowly down into the dark basement, he hears a noise upstairs. "Are you sure no one else is in the house?" When he grabs his stuff and runs upstairs he finds the front door has been locked and there's no way out. Shades of Psycho! Without any need for gore and violence, this kind of movie-making wins out hands-down.
At its heart, Zodiac is not really about the killings; it's about the obsession of the three main characters in response to the killings. And their obsession is costly. Paul Avery, seeing this as a ticket to fame, pursues this killer until he believes that the Zodiac is simply claiming others' killings. Through his obsession, he descends into drink and drugs with his own private demons.
Dave Toschi, on the other hand, is a cop who wants to catch the killer. Even after his partner moves on to a different beat, no longer able to bear the long hours and late night calls without success, Toschi is still fixated on Zodiac. Only when he himself is thought to be the writer of one of the Zodiac letters, one arriving out-of-the-blue after years of no activity, are the consequences of his fixation clear. He is moved out of homicide -- a career suicide for this honest cop.
Robert Graysmith, though, suffers the most. He started as a serious cartoonist, one with a loving relationship with his kids. Once the Zodiac got in his blood he could think of nothing else. Even his second wife, Melanie (Chloë Sevigny), left him. The obsession was plain for her to see even on their first date. He arrives late, asks her to spend time with him in a phone booth as he tries to contact Avery, worried that he may be walking into a trap set by the Zodiac, and then has her spend a long lonely night as they together wait for Avery's return call.
As his obsession continues, he withdraws from Melanie and involves his three kids in his compulsive pursuit of the killer. His character disintegrates and he appears dishevilled. When asked what is driving him, he can only say, "I... I Need to know who he is. I... I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it's him." As the movie's tagline says, "There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer" and Graysmith is most certainly losing his life, maybe his sanity, to someone he does not know but needs to find. This puzzle has control over him.
Zodiac paints a picture of a man who is obsessed with killing and a man who is obsessed with finding the Zodiac killer. It does not explain what drives a killer; it does not explain what drives an ordinary man to pursue a killer. Even at the end, when some of the loose ends are tied up, it still leaves the viewer left wondering if the answers were right.
What is it about an obsession that causes a rational person to put his life on hold, or even to lose his life, to forget everything and everyone to single-mindedly pursue his obsession? Zodiac portrays the puzzle-obsession but what about obsessions? The obsession with fame or fortune? Most obsessions are damaging, somewhere between mildly or maximally. The only obsession that is healthy and honest is the one that Steven Curtis Chapman sings about in his song, "Magnificent Obsession:" the obsession of pursuing the Lord Jesus Christ.
Copyright © 2008, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM