Movie Night With Urbaniak: Zodiac

In the late 1980s, I became interested in serial killers as I was working on my play One Neck. I read dozens of books on the subject, trying to tie them all together, trying to find a grand, unifying theory that would explain the actions of serial killers. Worst of all, I would need to approximate the mindset of a serial killer in order to write the antagonist of my play. This led me, as you can imagine, to some very dark places, places I found I do not like. My fascination with serial murder turned to revulsion and disgust. The more I learned about these guys (and they are almost all guys), the more I wished I could make it back to some plateau where I could un-learn all the things I had learned. Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein, Edmund Kemper, there was nothing “cool” or even very interesting about these individuals — they were monstrously sick, pathetically horrible men undeserving of the media space our culture, me included, have heaped upon their actions.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from writing my play, which later became a screenplay, which is now, twenty years later, becoming a graphic novel.

When the novel Silence of the Lambs came out, the reviews were so ecstatic, and I figured I’d best sit down and read it. It’s a terrific piece of genre fiction, but as a treatise on serial murder, it’s strictly fantasy. Likewise David Fincher’s magisterial Seven — cinematically brilliant, but conceptually koo-koo. Sorry folks, there’s no such thing as a serial killer with a grand scheme, a triumphal vision executed by a brilliant mind, murders loaded with puzzles and symbolism and cat-and-mouse games with the police.

Except, of course, that for a very long time, the Zodiac killer made it all seem possible. Letters filled with elaborate codes, taunting the police, taking credit for some murders but not others, creating a gigantic media frenzy that ensnared policemen, newspapermen and all manner of civilians from every walk of life.

In any case, I wrote my serial killer play, Silence of the Lambs was a huge hit and legitimized the genre, spawning a thousand serial-killer movies (Seven among them), and serial killers became ever-more brilliant, peculiar and fascinating. No serial-killer movie has ever captured the sick, sinking, thoroughly awful feeling I got reading the actual case studies of these thoroughly rotten, soulless people.

Until now.

It is altogether fitting that David Fincher, director of Seven, the slickest, most somber and and well-appointed of serial-killer movies, should return to the scene of the crime and make Zodiac, a movie completely opposite in tone and structure, that finally puts to bed the fantasy that movies like Seven help to create. Zodiac gets everything regarding serial murder completely right, and is, in every respect, a stunning, shocking, daring, visually sumptuous work of American filmmaking.

Just about anyone would have a good time watching Zodiac, but for anyone who knows something about how movies are made it is a non-stop feast of technique, prowess, and elegant sophistication. This is a 2 1/2-hour movie that could get by on production design alone, and yet that production design, far from being flashy or overwhelming, conquers expressly by not calling attention to itself.

(Strangely enough, the only piece of production design I could identify as being mis-handled was the posters for Dirty Harry shown in a theater lobby. Stranger still, Zodiac is co-produced by Warner Bros, so at least theoretically they could have located a poster for the movie. This bothered me for a long time until I decided that it must have been Clint Eastwood who didn’t, for whatever reason, want his name or likeness associated with Zodiac, in spite of Dirty Harry being directly inspired by the Zodiac killings.)

When I say the movie is “shocking” and “daring,” I mean that it shocks and dares in ways that no other Hollywood serial-killer movie would even consider trying. Fincher’s obsessive attention to detail, his compulsion to get everything exactly right, begins on the script level. Zodiac astounds by having its script flow in the opposite direction of conventional thrillers, where a collection of disparate, contridictory facts coalesces into a compelling case against the killer. Here, the case against the killer remains maddeningly elusive throughout — every time you think they’ve got the guy nailed, the evidence proves they’ve got the wrong guy. In the conventional Hollywood thriller, the “one man” prevails over a society of slackers and nincompoops — here, we have multiple protagonists who all try, and fail, in different combinations, to track down the killer, and in fact never succeed. Even All the President’s Men, which Zodiac pays conscious homage to, still had the cliche of a pair of mismatched detectives gathering the evidence that will bring down the bad guy — Zodiac goes even further, insisting that there were no mismatched detectives, no single defining moment of glory, no “follow the money” revelations. Because that’s not how these stories go. And yet Zodiac remains gripping, thrilling even, throughout its long running time (and I am told there is an even longer cut on the way).

Like Scorsese’s Casino, Zodiac shuns cliche and refuses simplification at every turn, taking a complex, multi-faceted, true story and tells it with all its weird, unique complications intact (or seemingly so — I haven’t read Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac, but I did read the book Casino, and was shocked to learn that, as complex as the story in Casino is, the reality is at least three times more complex. It wouldn’t surprise me if Zodiac had been similarly, if expertly, simplified).

Anyone who’s ever been on a movie shoot cannot help but marvel at the monumental technique that Fincher wields at every turn. There are hundreds of scenes in Zodiac, some no more than a few lines of dialogue long, all requiring huge sets of exacting, lived-in detail, dozens of extras and sophisticated computer-generated imagery, all to make the movie feel like it was actually shot in the time period it is set in.  Fincher refuses to cut corners.  A car pulls up to a curb — what could be simpler? The shot lasts maybe a second. And yet the shot requires a street full of vintage automobiles, streetfronts either convincingly re-dressed to period or re-created on a soundstage, and buildings created in a computer to fill in the gaps created by the intervening 30 years of history. Repeat this process hundreds of times and you begin to see the magnitude of Fincher’s accomplishment here.

Even better is an overhead shot following a taxicab through the streets of San Francisco. The camera looks directly down upon the car, following it so closely as to appear to be bolted to it, even though it seems to be about 100 feet above. The taxi goes around corners and the camera moves precisely to follow it, showing that it’s not a helicopter shot — no helicopter could be so exact. Then one realizes that it must be all CG, a CG taxi traveling through a CG San Francisco, all rendered with an incredible attention to realism and detail. Over and over again, shots that would be routine in other movies, second-unit shots even, simple establishing shots, driving shots, night-time road scenes, on and on, Fincher gives each one an elegant, understated, technically sophisticated spin.

The imagination brought to bear on the technique of the movie extends to the casting, with a huge cast of actors giving great performances in roles that require them to talk on the phone, point to boxes, write things down and ask each other questions. There isn’t a single chase scene, gross-out or moment of fake suspense — all the scenes involving Zodiac are claustrophobic, sickening and distressingly real. Major stars are rendered impotent and irrelevant by the plot’s end, yet we believe every step of the way the characters’ drive,compulsion and obsession.

Speaking of obsession, early on in the movie

  made a joke comparing Zodiac to Close Encounters, which also used soundstage sets for convincingly real exterior locations. Later on, as the movie became about a man obsessed with a phenomenon to the exclusion of his family, the Close Encounters parallel became more startling. Especially as the character, through the writing his book, pushes through his obsession and, in his own way, gets invited up into the aliens’ spaceship at the end.

Hollywood has been very kind to audiences this year, and audiences failed to reciprocate.  Two of the year’s most brilliant, most spectacular, most sophisticated entertainments, Zodiac and Grindhouse, failed to find audiences.  When crap fills the multiplexes next year, audiences will have to accept part of the blame themselves.

A note on the transfer: Zodiac is one of the most handsomely shot movies of recent memory. It was, I am told, shot on high-definition video, which looked spectacular when projected digitally in theaters, and yet there is a peculiar digital shimmer, a moire effect, to any scene on the DVD with too many horizontal lines, at least on my high-definition projector. I am curious to know if anyone else out there has this problem. I know that Fincher is a maniac about the way his movies look, which is why it surprised me to see his most elegant, gripping movie rendered in this rather odd, substandard way.

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24 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Zodiac”
  1. Well, you sold me on watching the film.

    I’m a little reluctant to learn that much about serial killers, truth be told. That just sounds like a fantastically well-made movie.

  2. adam_0oo says:

    Minor note to the CG taxi shot, I remember from the commentaries on Panic Room and Fight Club that Fincher somewhat pioneered the CG zoom concept, getting fantastic shots that could never be made in real life. Using CG not for monsters or even main action shots, but for supporting or transition shots.

    • Todd says:

      In my mind, the great pioneer of non-special-special-effects is Bob Zemeckis, who has steadily, consistently and expertly used CG to tell story instead of point to big effects.

  3. mr_noy says:

    I think Zodiac was easily one of the best films of last year but I see why it wasn’t a bigger hit. It doesn’t have a single, obvious protraganist (althought the GyllenhaalI character comes the closest), it’s a thriller with little in the way of gore or action, a mystery that offers lots of clues but no real answers and considering that the killer was never found it doesn’t lend itself to a pat, audience-pleasing resolution.

    As for the transfer (I assume you are watching the HD/Blu-Ray DVD and not the standard definition DVD) I wouldn’t put it past Fincher to hold off on the best possible transfer until his director’s cut comes out. If I’m not mistaken, the original DVDs for Seven and Fight Club were rushed out with so-so transfers and then Fincher tweaked the transfers for the two-disc special editions. Of course, it might be a ploy to encourage consumers to buy and prefer the extended version; sort of how Lucas finally released the original Star Wars films but made sure that only the “Special Editions” got the full anamorphic transfer.

    You may have already seen it but Zodiac most reminded me of Joon-ho Bong’s (The Host) Memories of Murder; another based-on-a-true-story film about a murderer who was never found. Like Zodiac, it says less about murderers and more about the society that lives in fear of them and the effect they have on the lives of the people tasked with finding them. You can check out the critical consensus here and check out the trailer here. It’s a film I always recommend to people I meet, especially when they’ve grown tired of the baroque theatrics of today’s cinematic serial killers.

    • Todd says:

      I was watching the plain-old “flip-book” DVD — I may have a high-definition projector but my DVD player is still a coal-driven steamer model.

      I haven’t seen Mr. Bong’s Memories of Murder but I enjoyed The Host well enough to take your recommendation under consideration.

      • mr_noy says:

        It would make a pretty good double bill with Zodiac. I guarantee it will be the funniest, creepiest, socio-political commentary cum police procedural set in 80’s Korea you’ll see all year.

  4. moroccomole says:

    This effects reel made me appreciate the film’s artistry all the more:

  5. zodmicrobe says:

    I believe ZODIAC was shot digitally with Thompson’s Viper Filmstream camera, the same one Michael Mann shot a lot of COLLATERAL and MIAMI VICE with. It records a widescreen 24p image at the proper scope ratio without sacrificing resolution. (Unlike other scope HD movies like ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, which was shot with the Sony Cine Alta cam system, in which the top and bottom of the 16:9 HD standard image was matted for a scope ratio.) It was also the first major studio production to be totally tapeless– data was recorded into a drive array directly from the camera.

    The moire you’re seeing comes from the fact that the transfer probably came from the original data of the film and was not telecined. Because most widescreen standard def DVDs are also anamorphically compressed (or “enhanced for widescreen TVs” as they say on the box), you’re going to get some of the weirdness when it comes to thin vertical lines not resolving perfectly with the standard def matrix.

    The inevitable Blu Ray or HD DVD of course will be incredible, and most likely won’t have this issue.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I really love Zodiac so I’m glad you did, too. I’m a tad worried that the extended cut coming will not really add much. As it stands, I think the movie’s running time is a little long although I wouldn’t know where to trim it. That’s why I bought the bare bones DVD that came out because apparently it’s the only place you’ll be able to purchase the theatrical cut of the movie.

  7. craigjclark says:

    I’m glad you watched this again since your original write-up on this film came and went before I had a chance to see it myself.

    I’m in full agreement that this is one of the best films of the year. There are a few hopefuls coming down the pike that might unseat it, but at the moment it is top of the heap in my estimation.

  8. teamwak says:

    Great read, thanks.

    This was already on my must-see list. Looks like its just moved to the top.

    I just makes me wonder what Finchers Aliens 3 might have been like without the ridiculous studio interference. Legend has it that the original script for Aliens 3 is one of the great un-made Hollywood films (says Empire mag). The original was apparently set in a distant monastery, not a prison full of rapists who had found God. That was a “note” apparently. At least Sigorney stuck up for him as much as she could.

    • Todd says:

      I’ll bet there was a good movie somewhere in Alien 3. But I can’t find it in either the studio or current director’s cut.

      • craigjclark says:

        Actually, that wasn’t an official director’s cut. Fincher refused to have anything to do with that DVD release.

      • Anonymous says:

        After 25 years, Ridley Scott got his definitive director’s cut of Blade Runner. Time is on Fincher’s side.
        When Fincher was a video director at Propaganda Films, I was 1 of his assistants (4 videos, 2 commercials, 1 film). He was very insecure and prone to tantrums, but an incredible craftsman. He taught me a great deal and I’ll always be grateful.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Digressing a bit, I was wondering if, in your research, you ever read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #14 (“Collectors”). It was, in part, written as a response to the burgeoning romanticization of serial killers.