What I Liked About that Zodiac Movie

by Edwin Turner

This weekend, I watched and thoroughly enjoyed David Fincher’s Zodiac, a film I initially had no interest in seeing, but nonetheless dutifully queued up when it wound up on numerous critics’ year-end top ten lists. When Zodiac came out last year, I prejudicially–and wrongly–assumed that the film, the tale of the infamous Zodiac killer who menaced California in the late sixties and early seventies, would be a moody character study, all ominous texture, smoggy chase scenes, and desperate anger à la Fincher’s 1995 thriller, Se7en (that movie where Gwyneth Paltrow’s head gets chopped off), or even worse, Fincher’s awful 1997 effort The Game. Most Hollywood suspense films–Fincher’s included–propel themselves on chase sequences, meaningless yelling, and overstated light and music queues that seem to scream “this is the part where you feel tense.” Zodiac, however, eschews all of these often vacuous tropes in favor of simply telling a story.

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In today’s issue of Slate, Elbert Ventura points out in his write-up of the director’s cut DVD of Zodiac that the film is “a cop epic without a single shootout, a serial-killer flick in which all the blood is shed in the first act, and a taut procedural in which the case is never solved. In fact, it’s one of the most unsatisfying thrillers you’ll ever see—which is precisely how Fincher intended it.” Ventura’s review is fantastic, and I highly recommend reading it. He discusses the underlying politics of Zodiac, arguing that the film champions due process over vigilante “justice,” an important position to reaffirm in an age of Jack Bauerisms and actual debates over what constitutes torture.

What I really enjoyed about the film wasn’t so much its sense of values (something I honestly only realized after Ventura’s review), but the fact that the story was told without the intrusions of the personal lives of the principals involved as some kind of dramatic back story. Too often, Hollywood feels the need to muddy a perfectly good story with an unnecessary secondary plot about the personal conflict that the dramatic action in the main plot creates for its protagonists. Zodiac seems to understand that the obsessive hunt for the Zodiac killer is a source of personal conflict for the characters. To be sure, wives are annoyed with husbands, family duties are overlooked, and characters have substance abuse problems. However, Fincher is never tempted to exploit these “issues” for dramatic fodder. Instead, what might’ve served as a dramatic back drop in a standard Hollywood movie becomes little more than a character tic.

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This is not to say that the film is not character-driven. Zodiac is anchored by stellar performances by that guy from Donnie Darko, that guy from Less Than Zero, and that guy from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and also features great supporting parts from that chick from Gummo, that guy from Revenge of the Nerds, and that guy who was in everything. Hell, even that guy from Mr. Show has a bit part.

Too bad that Zodiac was a flop. There should be more Hollywood thrillers like this, films unafraid to simply tell a great story, even if that story doesn’t have gunslinging heroes or damsels in distress, even if the bad guy gets away. Check it out on DVD.

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16 Responses to “What I Liked About that Zodiac Movie”

  1. The problem I had with Zodiac was that the director gave you absolutely no reason to care about these characters at all. Robert Downey Jr. is a douchebag reporter and Gylenhall (?) is the moon-faced dreamer. What was novel about this movie except that it provided absolutely no payoff?
    It was shot nicely, and was creepy at times, but it just went on and on and on, and was boring.
    While people praise Zodiac for defying convention, what’s the point of watching a cop movie where the cops simply fill out paperwork and muse? What’s the point of a serial killer movie where they don’t at least come close to catching the killer?

  2. Well, Dave, at the risk of restating my argument, the true Zodiac story was fascinating in and of itself, and what I liked about that Zodiac movie was the fact that it stuck to the story, it didn’t ask you to sympathize with its characters. The scenes at the movie theater–and all of the references to movies like Bullitt, Dirty Harry, and Serpico–contrast the black and white unreality of Hollywood cop films with the grayer reality of the Zodiac killings and the systems of order and justice and information that try to comprehend such malicious acts. A film like Dirty Harry or Death Wish amends the ugly realities of unsolved crimes by operating as a revenge story, a story audiences generally like and relate to and are, yes, satisfied by. I can totally understand why many people didn’t like this film: most people would much rather watch a 100 minute long thriller where the evil bad guy gets it in the end without the nagging constraints of due process or legal representation (possibly a falling related death, so that the hero doesn’t exactly “murder” the bad guy); most people would much rather “understand” or “relate to” the protagonist’s inner struggles, familial or personal conflicts that drive those protagonists to act.
    But again, I liked this film because it simply told a story. It’s far more frightening that the killer was never caught, and it’s far more dramatic that those investigating the case were constantly stumbling over false leads and red tape. This movie, on the whole, reminded me of many of the Hollywood movies I love from the 70s, when mainstream cinema made movies that weren’t formulaic cookie cutter exercises in genre. I heard a recent interview with FF Coppola on NPR; he talked about how he and his wife never went to the movies anymore because, usually within ten or fifteen minutes of the movie starting, they would turn to each other and say: “Haven’t we seen this movie before?” If you want to watch the same movie made again and again, a movie that reaffirms your sense of “correct” narrative and satisfies your brain’s need for junk food, that’s fine. But some people like different stuff, and they like to praise it when they see it so that perhaps there’ll be more options out there than Rush Hour 3 or another fucking Die Hard movie.

  3. Wha? Zodiac is a good film? I gotta disagree. And this is coming from a SUPERFAN of ambiguous cinema.

    From the unrelenting, miserable attempts at “quirky” dialogue, to the cliched David Shire score (oooh, it’s getting creepy — play the creepy cues!), to hollow characters, it was a mess. A slick mess, but a mess nonetheless.

    In its defense, I will say that my wife liked it, and she’s got pretty good taste.

    Oh, the dialogue. (shudder)

  4. I gotta wholeheartedly agree with Dave C. and Bob. Zodiac was a serious disappointment. I was bored about half way through and forgot the movie instantly. And I would also classify myself as one that enjoys ambiguous, boring, slow, classic, and various “other” forms of cinema. I don’t go see “cookie cutter” movies in general. We watch Ingmar Bergman movies all the time for chrissakes.

    I’m temped to give you a little thrashing simply because you gave Dave one (“If you want to watch the same movie made again and again, a movie that reaffirms your sense of “correct” narrative and satisfies your brain’s need for junk food, that’s fine. But some people like different stuff, and they like to praise it when they see it so that perhaps there’ll be more options out there than Rush Hour 3 or another fucking Die Hard movie”) and respond with something like…

    Maybe you don’t see enough “different” movies so you praise those that are slightly outside of the margins. But badly outside. Perhaps seeing some more stuff that “doesn’t satisfy your brain’s need for junk food” would open your eyes to a world of cinema that is vastly interesting .

    But I won’t say that because I know it’s not true. But still we disagree on this film. The reason some people don’t like this movie is because it’s bad. And boring. And the creepy music when there is nothing actually creepy going was horrible.

    Yes it told a story, and kept on telling it, long after the viewer had stopped caring. A story is a story is a story. But if it isn’t a very good one, then we’ve got problems. This is a movie. Just because it defies the conventions of the serial killer or detective film, doesn’t mean its good.

  5. Jeez Louise. Never knew this would be such a controversial post. For the record, I wasn’t attempting to give Dave a “thrashing” (and I’m still smarting from the one you gave me! ouch! Ed’s indie cine-cred incinerated…)…I don’t edit/think about my replies, I just go for it. My comment is really a response to Dave’s questions: “what’s the point of watching a cop movie where the cops simply fill out paperwork and muse? What’s the point of a serial killer movie where they don’t at least come close to catching the killer?” And for the record, I like the first two Die Hard movies, and I love movie junk food in general. And my taste in movies is almost always in dispute (I love the latest Star Wars movies, I think everything Scorsese’s done since Casino has been crap, I thought, I didn’t think No Country for Old Men was fantastic, Blade Runner is waaaaaay overrated, I will watch anything with Michael Keaton, Brick was the worst movie I’ve ever seen, I think Jaws is down right awful, I thought Grindhouse was waaaay better than Planet Terror, I think Woody Allen makes good films, etc.).
    I watched Zodiac on a week (or two) when I watched at least four or five other movies of 2007, including Once, Paprika, Stardust, and Fido, all of which I expected to like and all of which were nothing that special (although all were pretty okay). I had put off watching Zodiac because I had no expectation of liking it at all–I think Fincher’s terrible (I did like Fight Club the first two times I saw it, but I can’t forgive him for what he did to the Alien franchise (even though Jeunet did a good job “ending” that franchise (again, Jeunet’s film is widely critically reviled))). So maybe it’s about expectations, but I doubt it. I don’t really like long films, but I was engrossed by Zodiac. I thought it was a great story. I liked how I didn’t care about the characters; I liked it’s lack of artiness and its workman-like qualities in general. The vanilla score didn’t bother me in the least. It was like a really, really good, really, really long episode of Law and Order. Who knows? Maybe I just like boring movies. I loved The New World, but people have told me that it’s unwatchably slow. So.
    Since spouses seem to have become a part of this thread, it might be worth pointing out that my wife, like Bob’s, liked Zodiac. I mark that of note mostly for the fact that she usually falls asleep during most of the movies we watch, especially movies over 100 minutes, and she usually doesn’t care for anything we watch it seems.
    I could finish my comment with some vague platitude about differences of opinion and entitlements there to and spice of life and etc. But I won’t.

  6. Yes, the spice o’ life!

    I hope I didn’t come across as mean. It wasn’t my intention. But yes, people have strong opinions Zodiac.

    You should write up a post about Blade Runner if you really want to get Dave going. That’s one of his favorites of all time.

  7. I do like Blade Runner. It just seems to me that when the only people that seem to like a movie are critics, it is entirely possible that the movie (or CD or whatever else) is missing that something that makes it great. Yes, there was a palpable sense of dread throughout Zodiac that sort of permeated the viewing experience, it was shot very well, and it was different, but there was nothing to grip. It was, in the end, a bloodless film.

    I have never actually seen a Die Hard movie, but I think the first two are some ways down our Netflix queue.

    Kara is right. I do love Blade Runner, but haven’t seen the new “official” release.

  8. have you guys seen that Keaton joint Multiplicity? now that’s a movie.

  9. also, dude, you need to enable html in your comments. we need to be able to boldface movie titles and italicize words and shit.

  10. Going backwards:
    1. Not sure how to enable html on WordPress, but I’m not too worried about it.
    2. I saw Multiplicity (on your recommendation); it’s pretty good (although for a movie with so many Keatons it was still kinda Keaton-lite). I recommend Pacific Heights for a dose of Keaton-brutal. Also, I think Sweeney Todd would’ve been even better with Keaton as Todd. Also, I’d love to see a remake of Robocop where Robocop is a cyborg-woman, with Keaton as her affable but gruff partner. I’d love to see that.
    3. Dave, I actually love Blade Runner too, I just think it’s really really overrated, over-shown in “cultural studies” programs, etc.
    4. Dave, you must bump the first Die Hard movie up posthaste. It’s both crunchy and sweet, with a lovely aftertaste. A charming little film about self-reliance and the persistence of the human spirit, blah blah blah.
    5. Dave, you write: “It just seems to me that when the only people that seem to like a movie are critics, it is entirely possible that the movie (or CD or whatever else) is missing that something that makes it great”–I understand your assessment/reaction; I too generally get pissed when I come into disagreement with “the critics.” I want to shout fraud, point out that the emperor has no clothes, etc. In 2006, Brick was lauded across the board as a fantastic feature: why? Also, last year book critics loved Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a book that I thought was pretty terrible. This year, every critic seems to be jumping over themselves to jerk off No Country for Old Men. Sure it was a good movie (better than Zodiac, easily, for the record), but it wasn’t that good. Still, without going too far with this, I think critics have two conflicting jobs: a) Critics have the job of, at the most basic level, both informing and persuading the public in an honest way. A good critic should know that, despite their own feelings about it, most people who want to see a loud action movie will like Die Hard 4: Die Harder Again, Mutherfucker. At the same time, critics must serve as taste-makers who interpret future trends and note progression in an art form. That’s why critics tend to enjoy radical deconstructions of the forms that they write about and talk about (not that Zodiac is in anyway a radical deconstruction of a thriller; as I said before, I think it’s closer to an episode of Law & Order). Oftentimes, critics latch on to an artist before the general public do, helping to push that artist into a wider audience (this of course helped the Coen Bros become the “Coen Bros.” instead of just guys who made films (like Raising Arizona) in the nineties). But when a multitude of critics disagree with our own (we like to believe heavily informed) opinion, we see red, we take it personally.
    6. Kara, you didn’t come across as mean.

  11. my contention is good, great and other such subjective terms are all strictly in the eye of the beholder. these days i tend to approach film somewhat overly academically and clinically, but the bottom line is: did i find that entertaining (which is also a subjective term) or not? did it evoke a strong response from me? if so, was it negative or positive? i’m as guilty as others, but in this age of online criticism for the masses, i think we all tend to overthink by a mile. i liked Zodiac. it was a good movie for me, not great or close to great for me, but entertaining enough.

    keaton, on the other hand, has epitomized “great” on film for decades now. see (and extensively study): Mr. Mom/Johnny Dangerously

    i’ll expect a full report posthaste.

  12. I’ve seen Mr. Mom twice in the past month, on cable. I haven’t seen Johnny Dangerously in some time though. I’ll queue it up or get it from the library. Look for a Keaton Primer coming up soon (including of course his early days with Mr. Rogers).

  13. I’ve heard that Blade Runner is a dangerously overplayed movie. I saw it for the first time, though, after I returned from Japan in 2004.

    Just off the top of my head, here are some things that truly continue to get better the more they are shown or played or read, there are surely many more.

    Saved by the Bell reruns
    90210 Reruns
    Law and Order SVU
    the Big Lebowski
    Charles Mingus
    That first story, Axolotl, from Cortazar’s Blow-Up collection
    John Fahey’s Days Have Gone By
    White Nights by Dostoyevsky

  14. I really enjoyed ‘Zodiac.’ I actually saw it in its theatrical run, which was a bit disturbing considering all the hints that the Zodiac was self-obsessed and loved movies. I’ve always been interested in the Zodiac and felt Fincher did a fine job w/ the film, great acting, too. One of his more unsung projects.

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