The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


: David Fincher
: James Vanderbilt, based on the books by Robert Graysmith
: Ceán Chaffin, Brad Fischer, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, James Vanderbilt
: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey, Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, Dermot Mulroney, Philip Baker Hall

I walked it.

I tell my screenwriting students that great dialogue often isn’t really great dialogue, it’s great
context. You can’t look at the three words above and think that there’s any poetry to them, and yet when they arrive near the end of David Fincher’s Zodiac, they are absolutely as perfect a three words as you could conceive for a character to sum up his experiences. It comes as a throwaway – he’s simply talking about the distance between two houses in a neighborhood. But what he’s really talking about is ten years of obsession; the journey of which, finally, demanded that he walk it.

I’ve seen 90-minute movies that bored me to the point of suffering. Yet here is a 160-minute movie that consists almost entirely of conversations, phone calls, digging through paperwork, distracted meals, and scribbling, and it is absolutely mesmerizing. It’s a movie that knows answers can be disappointing but questions are always tantalizing – such as the question of why a political cartoonist would become fixated on the hunt for a serial killer.

David Fincher is a director known for dynamic visuals in the dark range of the color spectrum, and stories that venture into the equally-dark areas of the psyche. In this, his most restrained, meticulous, and mature film, he lets the material take prominence like never before. We don’t need to have a simple answer, because he has bent all his talent to making us believe the question. When Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) says he walked it, we feel the truth of it. He, and others like him, have been walking it for years.

The Zodiac killings of the late 60’s and early 70’s, in which an unhinged stalker struck seemingly random targets all over Northern California with guns and knives, then wrote about it in lurid, prideful detail, captured the public’s imagination, in part because the killer himself saw that it did. The letters and ciphers he sends to newspapers reveal an ego begging for recognition – he threatens to kill if he doesn’t get front page coverage. This makes him more human, and more frighteningly unpredictable. He messes up. Some of his victims get away. He lets his needs goad him into stupid mistakes.

But he is smart enough, and lucky enough, to confound his pursuers. This is the story of a serial killer who was never officially brought to justice; and yet this movie, piggybacking off the research of Graysmith’s two books, mounts a compelling case against one of the suspects. By the end you will believe you have looked into the eyes of a killer, one who wants to mock your incompetence even as he begs for recognition of his deeds.

Graysmith works at the San Francisco Chronicle, in a big open newsroom filled with sloppy desks, giant typewriters, and reporters who smoke together, drink together, and would probably live together if they didn’t turn the lights out at night. He’s fascinated by codes and puzzles, so when the Zodiac’s ciphers start arriving, he sidles over to the desk of crime beat reporter Paul Avery and finds himself hungry for details.

Avery, played with narcissistic flair by Robert Downey, Jr., is a substance-abusing, half-mad provocateur, but also a dogged reporter. He’s on a downward trajectory, but his perceptiveness – perhaps one petty ego recognizing another’s landscape – draws Zodiac’s attention.

And meanwhile, dedicated SFPD Detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) pursues lead after lead after lead after lead. Crimefighting is no easy business in Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s encyclopedic narrative. It reminds me of maybe the best police procedural ever made, Kurosawa’s kidnapping thriller High and Low, in which arriving at the solution involves exploring every one of thousands of false possibilities. Time, legwork, and the accurate filling-out of forms trump intuition just about any day.

Many breaks in the case are simply a matter of one police department finally noticing what another police department has had in its file room for years. In one scene so mundane as to be comically macabre, we watch Toschi’s partner Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) make one phone call after another to sheriff’s departments in different counties, trying to get straight who got killed where, who needs what paperwork, how to barter it so everyone feels like they’re in the lead on the case, and who’s sticking what in the mail since not all the offices have a “telefax”.

This is how police work gets done; and by acknowledging the slow, steady toll of frustration and disappointment it takes on people who try to do it well, Fincher depicts it as downright heroic. In a scene so precious it’s probably true, Toschi gets invited to a special screening of the thriller Dirty Harry, itself inspired by the Zodiac killings and, probably, the public’s latent wish for resolution. He watches the due-process-be-damned fantasy with fascinated disgust.

But Graysmith is the central character, because for reasons he can’t even see himself, he just cannot let go of this case – long after the trail has gone cold, long after the killings have stopped, after Paul Avery’s career is in its final disassembly and Toschi has exhausted nearly all his energy for what has become a one-cop crusade. Graysmith, to the detriment of his relationship with his second wife (Chloë Sevigny) and their children, at the risk of even his own personal safety, simply must find Zodiac. When he interviews a victim’s sister (Clea DuVall), she figures out his intentions immediately: “You have the look” she says, and it’s all she needs to say.

Part of it is about fear. In the Vietnam era, when a generation of draftees abroad were learning that death could come from everywhere, in San Francisco the prospect of it was suddenly everywhere on the homefront as well. Zodiac was threatening to shoot out the tires of a school bus and pick off the “little darlings” as they came out.

Maybe this was just the first time a fear that raw hit Graysmith where he lived (he’s a dedicated father who puts his kids on the bus every day), and it catalyzed him into discovering untapped capabilities. Gyllenhaal calibrates this evolving obsession with consummate patience – it’s a long movie he’s starring in, and we have to be with him every step of the way.

It’s an exhilarating experience, and the more admirable for how often it avoids sensationalism. We see some of the Zodiac’s handiwork early on, but Fincher focuses less on the violence than whipping up anxiety around how our bubbles of innocence and trust can be brutally violated. Fincher’s opening shots are of a serene suburbia on the 4th of July, families playing in the streets. I couldn’t help but assume the doors were unlocked.

In Zodiac, he charts through one man’s quest, with the confidence of a great filmmaker working at the peak of his powers, how people progress to the mindset where the doors are locked, and we worry about our neighbors. It is about how that violation can never be undone. And we understand it completely by the end, because we’ve walked it.


  • I am still trying to sort the ennui from Robert Downey Jr.'s voice from the insistent blippings of Pong. God, what a movie. The sheer level of information presented, the stalwart(yet soft-spoken) decency of Mark Ruffalo as Dave Toschi, (Brian Cox) Marvin Belli's response to cookie crumbs, the sweeping aerials of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a traumatized Ione Skye in a film beseiged by her father's music, the exasperation of Anthony Edwards' Armstrong and the dogged earnestness of Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith. And you are so right about the "I walked it" line. It's the moment Graysmith has stepped up to the plate as a player in the case, no longer "looming". In a perfect world, Robert Downey, Jr. or Mark Ruffalo would remembered next year at Oscar time. But, it's not a perfect world, and perhaps the best tribute one can muster(in addition to writing on the mark reviews) is to go into the nearest bar or pub, approach the counter, order an Aqua Velva and think of 30 years of false leads and good cops, and of the Zodiac symbol on Leigh Allen's wrist watch.

    By Anonymous Michael De Luca, at 11:53 PM  

  • Although it's early in the 2007 cinema year I'll be holding this movie and its performances in my mind when it comes time to calculate the year's finest. This review already went longer than normal and I didn't even get to mention the amazing soundtrack.

    By Blogger Nick, at 12:08 AM  

  • I could see campaigning for Robert Downey, Jr. wearing "I Am Not Avery" buttons.

    By Anonymous Michael De Luca, at 12:13 AM  

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