Tuesday, April 17, 2007
The following column is reprinted from the April issue of Providence Monthly
EYES WIDE OPEN
By Scott Duhamel
What exactly is behind the not-so-quaint American obsession with serial killers, repellant figures who lurk outside of society’s mores, aberrant and psychologically damaged citizens who leave a trail of death, sexual perversion, and unsettled souls in their wake, psycho killers bent on carving out their own kinda infamy with an entry into the bogeyman hall of fame? The eternal and ironic question remains—is the public (and the media’s) all-consuming interest into both the exploits and gory details of these killer-by-numbers one of the propulsive levers that actually set of the machinations of a public killing spree? During the last few decades we’ve elevated a whole batch of these predators and killer-misfits into the soul brothers of Jack the Ripper—They’ve become poets of torture, misunderstood dark geniuses, the boy-next-door who doesn’t grow up wanting to be President, complete with a full back story, Freudian analysis, while all the while being churned by the tides of the then politico and socio climates.
The so-called “Zodiac” serial killer roamed the back alleys and mean streets of the San Francisco Bay area from the late 1960’s through the 1970’s, playing cat and mouse games with both the police and the newspapers with phone calls, coded messages, death claims that were not always verified as his, even, at one point, actually wondering aloud in one note who might play him in any forthcoming movie. As time has passed the grisly story of the Zodiac has acquired more resonance since the case remains unsolved to today, and the killer has never been identified.
Director David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt seem to have taken all of the above into consideration (obsession and compulsion, mass hysteria, media eye-balling, the villain as headliner, mysteries and clues), crafting a haunting, cerebral, stately (almost 3 hours) film entitled Zodiac that neatly combines elements of the police procedural, the suspense thriller, and the psychological docu-drama. Fincher has heretofore made his mark with a series of profitable and much talked about movies (se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room) that were equally gritty, lurid, and meticulously constructed. That same directorial meticulousness is evident throughout Zodiac, a movie that (for once) mounts its suspense
Organically, eschewing the bumps and grinds of contempo suspense flics, for an all- pervasive mood of silent dread and stopped-up emotions, all of it unfolding in a chilling series of frames just this side of Edward Hopper, all of it devoid of Fincher’s previous penchant for heightened hysteria and grand guignol effects.
Zodiac centers around a few disparate men similarly obsessed with the Zodiac killings, all based on real life guys, including tough guy detective David Toschi
(Mark Ruffalo) and his low-key partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), flamboyant journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), and political cartoonist and amateur sleuth Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose subsequent books the movie is actually based on. The movie splits its time among these men, the killings, and the ongoing manhunt and the setting ranges from Vietnam to disco, from Watergate through the ’89 earthquake, the focus remains on the still fuzzy and unfocused mystery of the Zodiac—his where, what and why for. As specific (and self-promoting) as the bad guy is, the who and why remain illusionary, and the movie hints this is an accurate reflection of the terrors we face in today’s everyday world—the evil may be well documented, and even explained, but it’s inhabited by a faceless and omnipresent entity.
While it’s quite easy to cite Fincher and his first resounding effort, se7en, as the inspiration/launching pad for dozens of artless (and heartless) horror, suspense, and snuff films since, his readily acknowledged visual acumen and hardscrabble thematic vision seems to flourish in the larger scope of this particular cinematic tale. Finally, a film where the exploitative violence of a series of killings isn’t the payoff—Instead, Zodiac ‘s pleasures are derived from the intercrossing of textures (time and setting shifts, investigative inertia, characters incessantly yapping and smoking, yet another bloodied body), textures which are both the nuts and bolts and the very backbone of the story’s curdled arc. When all is said and done Zodiac was and remains another serial terrorist, part PR man, part midnight-rambler, the biggest element in a scrupulously told but essentially amorphous ghost story, just another shapeless particle of modern day horror, let loose in our dreams, both real and cinematic.