Two Cents Tracks Down ZODIAC

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

Over the years, a variety of hucksters and showman have constructed a variety of gimmicks to try and cajole, entice, or flat-out trick folks into buying a movie ticket. William Castle had plastic skeletons and vibrating, excuse us, tingling, seats. Other movies have trotted out everything from 3-D to Smell-O-Vision in the hopes of stealing eyeballs back from TV and (nowadays) phone screens.

But Tom Hansom may have them all beat. You see, Tom Hanson opted to make a movie about the Zodiac Killer while the Zodiac Killer was still theoretically at the height of his rampage across San Francisco. But Hanson made his film, The Zodiac Killer, not only as a quickie cash-in on a killer that still held a city in the grip of fear. Hanson, apparently with all sincerity, believed that his film could be used to actually trap and catch the murderer, which he would then incorporate into the film as a new ending. You can read all about that process HERE.

Tom Hanson did not catch the Zodiac Killer, but The Zodiac Killer became something of a cult classic, a legend of schlock and Barnum-esque stuntery (totally a word). Last month, the film was finally released on Blu-ray thanks to the folks at AGFA, and it even returned to theaters.

To commemorate this singular moment in weird/cult cinema, we decided to watch David Fincher’s exhaustive examination of the same case, Zodiac.

Largely ignored upon initial release in 2007 by both audiences and critics (the big narrative of that year’s awards circuit was the dueling juggernauts No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood), Zodiac’s reputation has grown by leaps and bounds and is today seen by many as one of the capital-G Great films of 00’s, and perhaps David Fincher’s masterpiece.

A decade later, does Zodiac hold up, or is this one mystery that should’ve been left to fade into the fog?

Next Week’s Pick:

We’ve been doing a steady string of acclaimed masterworks from various masters, so let’s change the pace and check out one of the least-regarded pictures from one of this generation’s most beloved creators.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, available to stream on Netflix Instant, baffled audiences and disappointed critics when it first hit in 2004, all the more so because it came on the heels of Wes Anderson’s greatest success to-date, the Oscar-nominated hit The Royal Tenenbaums.

But The Life Aquatic had its defenders, and their numbers have grown. So we put it you: Underappreciated adventure or justly-dumped mis-step?

Submissions are welcome anytime before midnight on Thursday. They can be sent to [email protected]

Our Guests

Trey Lawson

Zodiac is a movie I really wanted to like more than I did. I’ll admit upfront these kinds of critiques are tricky, because we are dealing with reconstructions of actual events and real people. That said, I’m discussing this strictly as a film. This is not to say that Zodiac is a bad movie — there is a lot to appreciate, especially regarding the performances. Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo are great, and there are some fun supporting roles by the likes of Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, Brian Cox, and Anthony Edwards. Jake Gyllenhaal is fine, although centering the story on his character is part of the problem I had with the film. Initially, the film is framed as something in the realm of horror or procedural thriller, reenacting murders and following both police and reporters who investigate them. This isn’t sustainable, of course, because the killings remain to this day unsolved and so there’s no way to satisfactorily resolve that narrative. So I understand shifting the focus to Gyllenhaal’s character, since his personal obsession with the case gives the story somewhere to go once all the other leads dry up. However I feel like we don’t really get to know him well enough before the obsession sets in. Thus when his research begins affecting his personal & professional life it doesn’t seem terribly surprising, especially considering his depiction from the beginning as something of a quirky outsider. Also, and this is purely stylistic preference, I was a bit put off by how polished and controlled the cinematography was. It’s very pretty, but doesn’t seem to suit the film’s topics of murder, obsession, etc. The common denominator, I think, is that the film conveys a sense of detachment both in technique and character. I can imagine an argument being made for why this could be a deliberate choice, but it just didn’t work for me. (@T_Lawson)

Husain Sumra:

Zodiac is a blessing of a movie. It’s a crime thriller that’s not really a crime thriller, a procedural that’s not totally a procedural. Instead, it’s a film about obsession. It’s the cinematic equivalent of having something on the tip of your tongue.

This is a masterclass in now to hand information to the viewer. You slowly give them piece by piece, giving them the confidence to start putting things together while also begging for more. We fully understand Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsession with trying to figure out who the Zodiac killer is because he feel the same way. It’s right there, within our grasp, but what ends up getting in the way is the actual procedure. We can’t fully prove anything, can we, we can just go by what we feel.

At a fundamental level, Zodiac understands that we fit new information into our own narratives the way we want. There’s a scene in the film where Gyllenhaal goes to visit a lead. He comes in there with his own ideas, and every piece of information he receives confirms his fears. You feel the same way, you’re terrified and you think he’s in dangerous territory. He’s not.

Zodiac is a masterpiece. (Husain Sumra)

The Team

Justin Harlan

As I anxiously await my copy of AGFA’s release of The Zodiac Killer to arrive, I can’t help but wonder why I, an avid true crime fanatic, have never watched Fincher’s Zodiac until this week. Perhaps I was scared off by the fact that some of the same era of Fincher has felt overrated to me — :cough: Social Network :cough: — or perhaps by its lengthy runtime. Maybe it was just some weird oversight. Nonetheless, I’d not yet dug into this film until earlier this week.

I can say this, however: waiting this long was a mistake. This is a legitimately great film. The performances, the direction, the score… the film is honestly better than I was ready for. At over 2.5 hours, the pacing somehow never feels slow. I don’t know what else to say. A solid 4 star film, I suspect it will reward rewatches, as well. This is one that I’ll be watching again several more times.

Great film. Great choice. Been a pretty damn great few weeks in Two Cents Land! (@ThePaintedMan)

Brendan Foley:

A lot of the things Trey mentions as flaws, or at least impediments to his enjoyment of Zodiac, are the things that make me love it so much. To his point about how we don’t get to know Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith before the obsession sets in, it’s because Robert Graysmith barely exists as a person before he becomes obsessed. He’s a vanilla, hollow man who is enraptured by the charismatic, swaggering presence of the likes of RDJ’s Paul Avery and Mark Ruffalo’s Dave Toschi, and Graysmith sees in the Zodiac case a chance to become like those guys, to define himself in as iconic a manner as those two. It doesn’t work out like that, of course, and I find the final movement of the film to be almost punishingly sad. Fincher’s climax suggests that for obsession like this, there can be no real triumph or release. Instead, these men each have to declare an arbitrary jumping off point, while the victims, for whom none of this is any kind of game, are left forever feeling their scars.

I do find Gyllenhaal to be the weak spot in the cast, not yet fully developed into the terrific actor he is today. But the rest of the cast is so overwhelming with personality and verve that it more than makes up for it. Fincher, to this point known for his aggressive visual style that combined Kubrick/Hitchcockian precision with kinetic momentum borne of a career in music videos and unchained by CGI, shows admirable restraint. Zodiac is about the search for truth, and so Fincher lays out every piece of information he can with exacting detail. We ride the stream of information, exhilarated by the way clues fall, lifetimes of detective stories having conditioned us to expect the grand reveal, the big, satisfying unmasking. But that’s not this story, and that’s not this movie, and Fincher breaks our hearts as surely as this endless case broke Avery, Toschi, and Graysmith. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Ed Travis:

In recent years which may or may not correspond directly with the advent of podcast phenomenon Serial, I (unlike any other middle class NPR-listening white people) have become minorly obsessed with true crime programs and murder mysteries. From half a dozen other post-Serial podcasts, to Making A Murderer and The Keepers on Netflix, to scripted series’ like The Fall and Broadchurch… I can’t get enough. There’s an unholy element to being entertained by true crime, as your titillation comes via an actual human tragedy.

With that in mind, what I found most fascinating about this revisit of the lengthy David Fincher film Zodiac, was how extremely, entertainingly watchable it is. Well over 2.5 hours fly by with the years as key players in the zodiac murder spree live their lives and in some cases let this case live their lives for them. There’s typically mind blowing cinematography happening throughout, as well as a stunning period recreation. Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo powerfully inhabit their roles as obsessed amateur detective and beleaguered real detective with grace.

I’m sure others will touch on the various themes of obsession, lack of resolution, and the minds of serial killers. I just loved the ride. (@Ed_Travis)

Frank Calvillo:

While most Fincher fans will point to either Seven, Fight Club or The Game as the best entry in the director’s career thus far, I’m one of the rare few who declares 2007’s Zodiac as his ultimate masterpiece. There are a few truly flawless films in the world; movies where every piece from the casting to the photography, to the script all work in tandem to create an exquisite piece of cinema. For me, Zodiac is one such example. The film has all of the director’s trademarks from it’s rich visual texture, to the filmmaker’s penchant for stand-out sequences (you’d be hard pressed to find a more stunning way to show the passing of time on screen than Fincher does here with the building of a skyscraper). Beyond just the breathtaking surface elements, the most impressive thing about Zodiac is how Fincher takes one of the most notorious serial killer cases of all time and makes it feel so fresh and involving. There isn’t a moment where, as an audience member, you do not feel like you are with Gyllenhaal as he trails the elusive killer, becoming just as obsessed as he is.

It says so much about Fincher’s integrity and skill that he sticks as close to the real-life events as possible right down to the last detail (including deciding not to re-create the killer’s first murder since there were no survivors around who could corroborate the specifics of it), yet still manages to provide enough suspenseful stand-alone sequences (the basement scene, the haunting phone calls, the stranded motorist and her baby) that literally define heart-pounding. Moving Zodiac along are a trio of stand-out performances, including an Oscar-worthy one from a pre-resurgence Robert Downey Jr., who adds both levity and intensity to the already pulsating film. I’ll always be a little bit bitter about the way the studio treated Zodiac, dumping it in a mid-spring release when the film would have surely been more critically and commercially accepted had it been given a chance. As it stands however, the film remains Fincher’s lost masterpiece with a power that remains just as strong a decade later. (@FrankFilmGeek)

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