David Fincher, the director of Zodiac, is rumored to be a cold SOB, but that’s not a bad thing if you’re a thriller specialist. A penchant for treating audiences like lab rats and actors like specimens in jars can even be an asset: Fincher’s Se7en, with its artfully rendered tableaux morts, is a genre cornerstone, a Louvre for necrophiliacs. Zodiac—which centers on the hunt for a sociopath who, beginning in the late sixties, killed at random while taunting San Francisco Bay Area police and newspaper editors with hammy threats and bizarre cryptograms—isn’t the same kind of tour de force. But in its roundabout, elliptical way, it gets at something transcendentally icky about the fetish for serial killers (and serial-killer hunters) that has grown only more common in this era of true-crime blogs and celebrity forensic scientists. It’s a movie about the allure of grotesque puzzles—and about living with the bogeyman when the bogeyman, in all likelihood, no longer lives.
It should be said that the movie itself feels like an unfinished puzzle. I don’t know if vital connecting material was lopped out in the editing room (the thing still runs two and a half hours), or if the screenwriter, James Vanderbilt, couldn’t find the right frame for all the minutiae in the rambling books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, by the former editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played onscreen by Jake Gyllenhaal). But what begins like your basic police procedural becomes more and more choppy and diffuse. To a point, that’s intentional: Zodiac was never caught, and Fincher aims to creep you out with the lack of closure, with the absence of a Dirty Harry–style climax and windup (Dirty Harry being one of the myriad serial-killer thrillers that drew its inspiration—if that’s what you want to call it—from the Zodiac case). But there are lapses in storytelling that don’t seem like bold artistic choices. It’s a little confusing who lives and dies after one Zodiac attack, and the escape of a near victim happens entirely off-camera. Fincher, it turns out, is not a police-procedural-type guy. He’s not a people-type guy. He’s a mood ghoul.
A great opening can carry you a long way, though, and Zodiac has a stunner: an attack at night on a couple in a parked car that’s among the most brilliantly cruel sequences I’ve ever seen. Fincher has already chilled you to the bone with the combination of darkness, distant fireworks (it’s July 4), and Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (“singing songs of luuuhhh-huhhh-huuuuv”). The druggy aura isn’t overdone, but the dark side of the counterculture is in the music and Fincher’s pacing, in the way a second car pulls up in back and sits—and sits. The face of the figure that emerges—out of a sudden bright light—is always on the brink of visibility, but never … quite … And the shots, when they come, blast right through your head. The second murder set piece is in some ways the greater—and more perverse—achievement: in daylight, in the open (in front of an endless vista), with only the sound of a woodpecker. Well, there’s one other sound: the hooded Zodiac addressing the bound, prone couple in almost reassuring tones—the tones of a reluctant robber, not a killer. He really was a sick fuck.
The rest of the movie is purposely flat—and, to be honest, I can’t remember many scenes distinctly. They go by fast (sometimes too fast). The cinematographer, Harris Savides, uses a newfangled hi-def video camera, and the lighting doesn’t seem fussed-over. The excellent actors—among them Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, and Dermot Mulroney—talk quickly and play it close to the vest in the best police-procedural style. As an investigative reporter who drifts into alcoholism and addiction, Robert Downey Jr. blurts his lines and brightens every moment with his choirboy-gone-to-seed ingenuousness. Even when he plays a cynic, there’s something hopeful about him. The rumpled Mark Ruffalo plays a San Francisco detective who returns every year to the site of a cabdriver’s murder, and the actor carries a trace of that same boyish hurt. Come to think of it, with the addition of Gyllenhaal, this is a baby-faced central trio: Unlike the obsessed cops and reporters in most noir pictures, they’re in a different dimension than the sadist they pursue. John Carroll Lynch is Arthur Leigh Allen, who might or might not have been the Zodiac but who is beyond any doubt a scary freak with an inner life the actor can only hint at—broadly. Fincher keeps him on the periphery, which is dramatically unsatisfying but ups the eeriness quotient exponentially.
As the nominal protagonist, Gyllenhaal has a lot of pep, but at times seems dazed, even shell-shocked; I missed seeing what the real Graysmith claims in interviews, that his dogged independent sleuthing came from the same place as his editorial cartoons—as moral outrage at injustice. But then, I don’t think Fincher can relate much to moral outrage. What occupies him is how to send you home antsy, unsure of what you’ve seen but sure it was worse than you think. He gives you the existential willies.
Even if Fincher were as empathetic as Jonathan Demme, though, it’s possible that Graysmith’s escalating serial-killer fixation (which onscreen makes Chloë Sevigny decamp with the kids) wouldn’t have the kick it would have had ten or twenty years ago. Spending one’s life in a quest for justice by poring over forensic files and exhuming cold cases might once have been abnormal behavior, but now it’s grand escapist entertainment for the masses. As Mel Brooks would say, it’s Abby Normal.
At the multiplex in my progressive little fairy-tale kingdom of Park Slopia, the trailer for Black Snake Moan—in which big black Samuel L. Jackson chains little white nympho Christina Ricci in her shorty-cutoffs to his radiator—drew dark murmurs and even a few boos. What the hell—had Tarantino remade Mandingo?
We’ll see how the movie itself plays. It’s outlandish, hilariously overripe, and possibly sexist: You’d expect no less from Craig Brewer, the writer and director who made the passionate case for how hard it is out there for a pimp. But I loved the picture’s tabloid energy and heart. At bottom, Black Snake Moan is an old-fashioned feel-good, Sunday-schoolish kind of parable about a broken, bitter ex-alcoholic who’s spiritually reborn by, uh, chaining a little white nympho in shorty-cutoffs to his radiator. But it’s not how you think! Wouldn’t you have chained Anna Nicole to your radiator if you could have saved her? Wouldn’t you chain Britney to your radiator?
Okay, it is pretty sexist. But Ricci’s character, Rae, isn’t a predatory she-devil. She’s an abused and profoundly damaged young woman. She needs therapy—or an exorcism.
Jackson’s character, Lazarus (I know, I know), is a former blues singer, and the Deep South of Black Snake Moan is a world of bottomless blues—and bottomless greens and reds and pinks and yellows and browns. It’s a very colorful movie. Ricci’s flesh tones jump out of the screen; you almost forget how much weight she has lost. Those eyes were huge to begin with; now they look like something popping out of a shrunken head. (It’s still a big head in proportion to her body, though.) In any case, no one can win a staring contest against Samuel Jackson. “God seen fit to put you in my path,” he says, incinerating her with his gaze, “and I am going to cure you of your wickedness.” Basket cases saving other basket cases: If that’s not a design for living …
Jackson and Ricci are marvelous. So is the bucket-of-blood blues soundtrack, especially the song that goes, “I love you/Love them chicken heads, too.” Justin Timberlake doesn’t sing, but he gives a fine, sensitive performance as Rae’s fiancé, who suffers from his own uncontrollable spasms. Brewer directs as if his actors make him high. There is balm in Gilead.
Linda Hattendorf’s The Cats of Mirikitani won the audience-favorite prize at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and it was my favorite, too. It’s one of the best kinds of documentaries—not calculated but serendipitous. An accident. A miracle. As you see in the opening scenes, Hattendorf becomes fascinated by a homeless, rather dotty 80-year-old Japanese-American artist named Jimmy Mirikitani, who lives and sleeps in the vicinity of her apartment near Washington Square Park. She buys some pictures from him and thinks, Hmmm, maybe he’d be a good subject. Then, on September 11, planes crash into the World Trade Center, and Hattendorf rushes to find Jimmy. She lets him sleep in her apartment—where together they watch reports of violence against Arab-Americans. Bingo! It turns out that during World War II, Jimmy was a prisoner in a California internment camp—and the aftermath of 9/11 brings up traumas long buried. By the time Hattendorf and Jimmy make their way to California for a reunion of internment-camp survivors, you’ll feel your own narrow vision has been liberated.
After 35 years of investigation, San Francisco police officially declared the Zodiac case “inactive” in 2004. Yet among the suspects, Arthur Leigh Allen, convicted pedophile and general creepshow, has always garnered the most attention. For one thing, he reportedly told someone that he’d fantasized about going on a killing spree. For another, in a police interview, Allen, unsolicited, talked about “the two knives I had in my car with blood on them”—chicken blood, that is—when discussing the 1969 attack on a young couple at Lake Berryessa in Napa County (news of which, of course, had been all over the media). And he had this vaguely suspicious wristwatch … But Allen was never arrested, and in 2002, DNA evidence seemed to clear him—ten years after he’d died of a heart attack at age 58.
Other suspects have included the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who lived in the Bay Area during the time and also liked to send letters to the authorities (he and the Zodiac shared a fascination with bombs, too), along with about a thousand others. One Vallejo, California, lawyer even held a press conference in 1991 to say that his dead brother was the psycho. Nice.
Perhaps the most intriguing suspect to surface in recent years was a wealthy, retired San Francisco businessman. An amateur Zodiac investigator named Mike Rodelli, a former advertising copywriter from New Jersey, claims to have compelling evidence that points to the guy, based in part on letters he wrote under his own name to local papers. But in 2000, the unnamed 81-year-old in question told the San Francisco Chronicle, “You can’t find anybody in this city that’s less likely to be the Zodiac killer than me. I haven’t hit anybody since I was a kid. It’s goofy.”—Jonah Green
Backstory on the Zodiac Case
Directed by David Fincher. Paramount Pictures. R.
Black Snake Moan
Directed by Craig Brewer. Paramount Vantage. R.
The Cats of Mirikitani
Directed by Linda Hattendorf. PBS. NR.