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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Zodiac

Blame my adorable husband. He has a birthday every year, and it always seems to fall on March 3rd. What does that have to do with anything, you ask? It’s that we have a tradition of going away for his birthday and that means really “going away” like out of the country, so this last week we were in Budapest, Hungary when my beloved future ex-husband Jake Gyllenhaal’s new movie Zodiac opened at the Essex Cinemas.

I scoured the streets of both Buda and Pest (I’ll bet more than a few of you didn’t realize they were two different cities linked by or divided by ~ take your choice ~ the Danube) looking for a movie theater there that might be premiering
Zodiac at the same time, but, alas, it was not to be. Instead, just for the fun of it, we did see Music and Lyrics (Zene és Dalszöveg), which was dubbed in Hungarian, a language neither my hubby nor I understand in the least. That was cute, but Hugh is no Jake, so for days I longed for my chance to see Zodiac and see what Gyllenhaal and director David Fincher (Panic Room) had cooked up.

Back in the Stone Age, I worked briefly at the San Francisco Chronicle, so this story about how that newspaper’s star reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.; The Shaggy Dog) and its puzzle-solving editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (that would be my beloved future ex-husband Jake Gyllenhaall; Brokeback Mountain) were overwhelmed by the investigation into the identity of the notorious
Zodiac, a serial killer who sent the paper taunting letters about his crimes and threats cloaked in mysterious ciphers.

The fact that the
Zodiac was never officially found or charged in any of the murders he claimed is a well-known fact, so you can’t go into the movie without a bit of hesitation because unless Fincher is planning to put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box again like he did in Se7en there isn’t much of an ending to the story and audiences tend to demand closure before the final credits. I guess you could call it “closure” in the sense that Fincher does give us updates on the whereabouts of the main ‘characters’ in this real-life drama, but the biggest question of all remains unanswered. It’s not so much who was the Zodiac but why did he do the things he did?

The screenplay, by Producer James Vanderbilt, and based on Robert Graysmith’s book, does a good job of presenting Graysmith’s journey from barely-involved cartoonist to obsessed madman who will do almost anything he can to solve the case and answer that question. Along the way he makes friends with and then alienates key players like Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo; Rumor Has It) and Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards; The Forgotten), the two police detectives who were assigned to the case over the span of a decade or so that the killer was active throughout the Bay Area. Like Graysmith, their lives seem to orbit around
Zodiac and he directs their futures more than they realize.

Gyllenhaal, as always, does a terrific job, with a nuanced performance that subtly shows incredible character growth and change. Graysmith is first seen as a shy, nerdy artist but as he succeeds in helping the police and the press with the puzzles sent from the
Zodiac he quietly grows in confidence and stature. Then that confidence shifts just a tad to a sense of urgency, and on to demanding, and then finally to out-and-out obsession. The Zodiac’s presence in Graysmith’s life at first seems to help draw the introvert from his shell, but, as the film seems determined to prove, everything the Zodiac touches is ruined, and soon Graysmith’s marriage, career, and even his sanity seem in question.

It’s even worse for Paul Avery. As the story begins he is already competing heavily for attention
with columnist Herb Caen for editorial glory and he is clearly a functional alcoholic, drinking at every available moment. For Downey, this is what is called a stroll down memory lane. I’m not sure he was acting so much as recalling the last twenty years of his life before his miraculous career and liver resurrection thanks to a year-and-a-half in prison. Anyway, Downey shows us how being targeted by Zodiac into being his media “contact” only adds to the reporter’s pressure and as the years wear on so does Avery. He adds pot then cocaine to his repertoire. By the time he considers multi-tasking the ability to use a bong, a bottle of Scotch, and a full coke spoon simultaneously, it is obvious that his life is as destroyed as those who have been either shot or stabbed by the killer Avery had hoped to bring to justice.

For viewers looking for the cheap thrills of blood lust, this may be a disappointment. The five murders actually traced to
Zodiac (though he bragged of dozens of others in his notes) are shown quickly and early on. Yes, they are gross and the stabbing deaths in particular are gruesome but they are over quickly and not revisited in flashbacks or police photos. This is not a story about these victims. Actually, it’s not really even a story about the murderer himself. Instead, it is a story about the walking wounded, those who have never met the Zodiac yet who are driven to find him and put an end to his killing spree. Ironically, they become his victims as well because the longer the crimes go unsolved the more consumed with the case they become, until it destroys their personal lives and, with some, their careers.

Zodiac is Fincher’s most grown-up film to date. He has merged the technical complexity of Fight Club, the shrewd character development of Panic Room, and the creepy tone of Se7en to create a multi-layered look at how the actions of one unexplained madman can send unexpected aftershocks into the lives of any number of strangers he’s never even met.

This is a terrific film for adults who enjoy thinking during their movie-going experience. It’s not a
mystery, but more a slice-of-history opened up for a second look, and now, after almost 40 years, the picture is as shocking as it was then but sadder still in seeing the long-term results of Zodiac’s impact on our culture. As a movie villain Zodiac would barely make a ripple on the screen. His five victims dispatched by guns and knives show none of the imagination of a Freddie Kruger or Jason Voorhees. As such, Zodiac, the movie, may not find an audience among the coveted youth market because Zodiac, the serial killer, is just not “cool” enough. That says the saddest thing of all about where we’ve come in the past four decades.

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