Zodiac review by Tom Blain
There is one particular point in the movie Zodiac where Detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is at his wits end with the unbreakable Zodiac case. His stoic partner (Anthony Edwards) and boss (Dermot Mulroney) tell him to take a break and find some sort of escape. That escape leads him to hit the theatres for a quick movie but his choice in films couldnt be more ironic: Dirty Harry. The Scorpio villain in Dirty Harry was based on the Zodiac killer in San Francisco; the same case that Toschi has been struggling with for two years. There is an obvious (and for the character painful) contrast between the detective on screen played by Clint Eastwood and the detective in the theatre. Where Harry operates outside of the law and shoots his gun based more on instinct than probable cause, Toschi must work within the rules and bureaucracies that keep the innocent and sometimes the guilty protected. Where Scorpio is crazy enough to fall into a trap, the real Zodiac killer remains anonymous and beyond arms length. And where facts and clues seem to come easy to the cowboy- archetype cop, the clues and information seem murky at best for the real life detectives.
In both films a broken system is at fault for the heroes not being able to catch the villain in time. But the difference is that in real life there is no cowboy with a silver bullet six shooter to make sure all is right in the world. And even if there was, he wouldnt even know where to start to find the psychopath. Toschis frustration in the theatre reflects his own limitations as a cop within the US justice system. He gets up in the middle of the night to protect the innocent but in the case of the annonymous Zodiac Killer he is powerless. But what he sees on screen is definitely what he expects from himself is mainly frustrating because he knows its what the public is crying for and its what he won't allow himself to become. Dirty Harry is fantasy but Zodiac well its not real life but its many steps closer.
This is the genius behind David Finchers Zodiac. Based on the true story of a San Francisco serial killer in the late 60s, Zodiac isnt just a popcorn gobbling detective flick, but a film that digs deep into the core of what it takes to solve a complicated murder in a densely populated area. There are scores of would-be detectives who try to play a part in cracking the case, but central to the film there are two really two main players. Toschi is the detective who works on the case through the San Francisco Police. His name is forever attatched to the case, and the longer it goes unsolved, the worse it haunts him. Then there is San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist (and amateur puzzler/sleuth) Robert Highsmith. He is fueled more by the puzzles and codes that Zodiac leaves behind. His drive is more to solve a riddle than it is to bring a man to justce. At the point where the cops cant go on any further with the investigation (and this is years later) he was still working away trying to crack codes and use all the information to figure out who committed the murder.
The main difference between Zodiac and any other mystery flick is how Fincher presents the evidence. In most films, its cut and dry: Hand-writing samples match, we got our man. Finger prints on the gun, and you can book suspect X. One witness sees the perps shadow and its curtains for the villain. Zodiac complicates evidence in two ways: 1) it doesnt always get to the cops in time and 2) interpretation of evidence is completely subjective. Sure one handwriting expert could say the samples match but another could find a flaw that completely negates the evidence. Finger prints? They could be from someone else unrelated to the crime. Someone saw a face? That was two years ago and they are only 80% sure it was him. There is a frustrating switchback of He did it, no he did it, where one sample of evidence leads to one suspect but then something else leads the investigators in a different direction. As the movie goes on and on there is so much information that its impossible to figure whats important and what is fluff.
A natural comparison can be drawn between Zodiac and Finchers previous film detective/serial killer film Seven. In both movies, the killer is in control more so than the detectives. In his films, detectives are seen as men with nearly impossible tasks and rarely in either film is there a break through that leads you to believe otherwise. The information is always a day or so behind the actual events making it difficult to find the villain in a large city. Unlike in Seven though, there is almost an infinite timeline over which the detectives are following the killer (as opposed to just 7 days). It shows them breaking down. It shows them giving up after being soundly defeated. Highsmith is the only one who keeps his personal investigation alive at the risk of his day job, family, and his own life. He is the lone person in the movie that can leave it on a somewhat positive note (I wont mention the ending note in Seven but I will say Whats in the box?).
There were some sigh of relief moments in the film As I watched painfully watched the detectives in Zodiac fumble through day-old-bread clues I thought to myself, Man its good to be in living in the information age. There is one scene in particular where San Fran detectives try to get tele-faxes from outlying smaller towns. Their response, We dont have Tele-fax. But those scenes were balanced by media abuse of sensitive information scenes where a news paper would run with information that appeased to the killers demands. Ah, you live by the sword you die by the sword I guess.
Finchers technical work with the camera is second to none. Both films are not only dark and bleak thematically but visually. Fincher creates color-noir settings unlike any director. When he doesnt want you to see the villain he shrouds his face in shadows that look natural to his world. Finchers vision also provides a generous blend of sweeping long-takes that break down stage wall barriers, with montages and quick cut scenes that keep the pace of the film in check (a tough task for a 2 hour film). Violence in a Fincher film is an art and reminiscent of a Peckinpah flick (specifically the slow motion scene where the killer shoots his first victims).
Zodiac is probably one of the best films of 2007 if not the best. If you can handle a movie with a lot of suspense and a dose of violence, then this one comes highly recommended.
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