After I first saw Zodiac, I was certainly open to the suggestion it might be David Fincher’s best movie. I could paper over some slight performance misgivings by dint of the conviction and dedication with which the director was telling this story. And given his meticulous approach and the opening promise “What follows is based on actual case files”, it seemed maybe there was good reason to credit his getting behind Robert Graysmith’s belief that he had solved the unsolved case. Hindsight is everything, though, and while Zodiac features sequences – mostly in the first half – that are up there with the most compelling, signature work the director has delivered, it’s ultimately something of an ungainly, dissatisfying picture, one that embraces and discards tropes in equal measure in its attempts to bolster Fincher’s version of verisimilitude.
The biggest issue with a picture such as Zodiac is that, as a true-life account of an unsolved crime(s), its bread and butter is the idiosyncrasies of the case and fact that it doesn’t fit cleanly into a standard narrative; it’s thus surely key to its forensic examination that it should be as reverent to the known facts as possible. Otherwise, its whole raison d’être falls apart. This makes it different in form to your standard biopic, where a known quantity is distorted in order to make for a more digestible movie; the indigestible aspects of Zodiac should, in theory, only add to its authenticity.
Which ought to mean that avoidance of the inherent inconsistencies and alternative theories regarding the case can only do it a disservice. This is the very clearly Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac, and as such, a less rigorous veneer than the sort Fincher brings to bear is probably warranted. Indeed, when the movie’s detectives walk out of Dirty Harry in disgust, at its affront to reality, I’m left feeling “Well, at least that affront is something”. Zodiac ends up neither fish nor fowl. It’s imprinting Fincher’s preferred narrative over a case full of holes, and he knows – or ought to – the way this goes; the Hollywood version invariably becomes the one that is imprinted on the mass consciousness. Which, given his legacy as a purveyor/ promoter/ obsessive over all things serial killer, was surely precisely his intention (my understanding, however, is that Fincher’s obsession isn’t evidence of him being a Black Hat, although I’m sure they were fully on board with his confabulations).
You can call it brave or recklessly perverse to tell the story of an unsolved murder(s), where there’s no catharsis, no high notes, just the thankless trudge of police – or investigative journalist – work. The consequence is that Fincher inevitably struggles with the material, such that, in the absence of genuine hero moments, the hero moments fall to his author and “solver” of the case.
Putting Graysmith – or rather, the author of a book on the case, regardless of its veracity for the minute – at the centre may or may not have been a mistake, but casting Jake Gyllenhaal definitely was. There’s an empty centre here, with Gyllenhaal offering dead-eyed stares but little that gives us a reason to engage with Graysmith; we keep hearing how he’s seen was weird/ retarded, but Gyllenhaal suggests none of this (that Orland Bloom was Fincher’s second choice boggles the mind, as it further indicates he was on totally the wrong track).
There’s nothing compelling about Graysmith’s quest. We don’t necessarily need character substance – per the director’s model All the President’s Men – but we have to be engaged. There’s a lot more of Graysmith’s personal life in the movie than there is Woodward and Bernstein’s (which is pretty much none) in Alan J Pakula’s film, yet what we get fails to spark investment (ironically, Chloë Sevigny is far more interesting in her scenes as Melanie Graysmith than the lead actor she’s opposite). Gyllenhaal was noted to have griped about the experience, but I expect, if he felt he’d done good work, he’d have fewer issues. As it is, you’re left with a very Fincher takeaway from the performance. He really added digital hair to Jake Gyllenhaal’s knuckles?
More than just Gyllenhaal, though, it feels like there’s a casting mismatch across the board. Up to this point, a Sean Penn or so aside, the director’s picks had been pretty much on point. But for the cops, we get subdued Mark Ruffalo (always subdued) and Anthony Edwards (always diligent), almost asking you to switch off completely. That may be partly the intent, since this is about Graysmith. Particularly so, since the guy you naturally want to watch – Robert Downey Jr as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery – is side-lined with an hour to go.
The cast never coalesces. The detectives aren’t doing very interesting detective work, and since all the intuitive leaps are lent to Graysmith – rightly or wrongly – you tend to the position that their side is redundant. There’s lots of good work around the edges, with Elias Koteas as Sgt Jack Mulanax (in Vallejo), Brian Cox sporting a mid-70s Brando wig as lawyer and one-time Star Trek actor Melvin Belli, John Carroll Lynch on creepy form as prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, and Roger Rabbit Charles Fleischer offering a disconcerting red herring as Bob Vaughn. They can only do so much, though.
Fincher shot (very nearly) entirely on digital, and the results are occasionally striking, but more often, Harris Savides’ work resembles a Jeunet movie, with a kind of sickly greenish hue that adds to the sense none of this is really set in the ’70s (the costuming and Edwards’ wig also feel like they’ve emerged straight from the prop and hair departments).
Perhaps my initial response to the movie was so positive because Fincher throws your off so effectively at the outset, first with the Hurdy Gurdy Man accompaniment to the Vallejo lovers’ lane shooting and then the horrifying stabbing at Lake Berryessa. But as the picture progresses, the devices – obvious movie devices – of Graysmith being inspired or struck by realisations that elude others feel increasingly contrived and at odds with the announced intent. This reaches its absurd nadir when he’s banging on Toschi’s door in the middle of the night to tell him his latest “realisation”.
Fincher and James Vanderbilt are evidently set, despite protestations to the contrary, on steering their picture in a clear direction that will pick Arthur Leigh Allen out of their line-up. As such, they reference but don’t include other suspects, and the closest we come is an intentional red herring – as in, he was never seriously considered, and is probably there for that reason – as Graysmith is highly unnerved upon visiting Vaughn, who invites him down to his basement while footsteps are heard upstairs, even as Vaughn insists they’re alone. It’s as odd a digression – it seems to be there to show where Graysmith’s head is at – as including the Kathleen Johns (Ione Skye, daughter of Donovan) incident, where she is menaced by a driver. Therese are included, yet the first “official” case, of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen on December 20, 1968 along Lake Herman Road in Vallejo, is omitted. Apparently, for accuracy’s sake, Fincher didn’t want to depict any of the alleged murders for which there were no surviving victims or witnesses. Say what?
Fincher includes references to possible takes on the “ultimate boogeyman” – “Well, you bring up a good question. Is he a Satanist?”; “He’s breaking the pattern”; “There’s not many basements in California”; the idea that the Zodiac was taking credit in his letters for murders after the event, and the numbers varying from 37 to 5 (the latter being the official tally) – but since he restricts himself to crediting Graysmith’s account, it’s only reasonable that he should be called out.
Michael Butterfield’s website offers a fairly devastating broadside against Graysmith’s evidence and also the accuracy of Fincher’s movie. Some of his charges, such as Avery and Graysmith never having met while the former was at the Chronicle, are understandable movie conceits for the sake of economy, but only if they don’t interfere with presenting the facts of the case (which, Fincher said, is what he was set on doing). Other incidents are given emphasis as “proofs”, such as Mike Mageau (Jimmi Simpson), survivor of the first attack depicted in the movie, identifying Allen in a mugshot in 1991 as a coda scene; Butterfield notes “Mageau did not speak to or look at the gunman” as he approached the car, so his confirmation was not considered credible.
Then there’s the emphasis on the fallibility of handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill (Philip Baker Hall) in order to boost the movie’s case for its suspect, and likewise the fingerprint evidence (“Those who question the validity of this evidence usually do so while accusing a suspect whose fingerprints did not match the fingerprint found on the cab”). The agreement that it wasn’t Zodiac who called the TV station isn’t acknowledged, while the police identification of the caller to Belli’s home – a mental hospital patient – is omitted, the latter point acutely significant as it forms a staple of Graysmith’s later realisations, which include Toschi – who knew the caller was a mental patient – telling Graysmith Zodiac called Belli’s home.
We have the crossed circle sign being an indicator that Zodiac was inspired by the brand of watch, when the origin of it is the zodiac itself – “Put simply, the crossed-circle symbol IS a Zodiac” – and thus that of the watch manufacturer. There’s the reliability of Donald Cheney, played by John Hemphill in the film (in particular, Allen lost his teaching job three months after Cheney originally said he did, when he was supposed to have had a conversation about he would like to commit similar crimes to the Zodiac and mentioned The Most Dangerous Game as an influence). And then there’s how “his brother and his sister-in-law told police that they did not believe Allen could be the Zodiac and stuck to that”, and that Allen never said the leading “I am not the Zodiac, and if I was I certainly wouldn’t tell you”.
Graysmith didn’t learn of the “birthday call” – to Melli’s home, which Graysmith ascribed to Allen’s birthday – until 1999 and never had any alleged heavy breathing calls until after his book was published. Then there’s the 1978 letter, which Graysmith appeared to flip-flop over, dismissing it as a forgery or validating it, depending on the needs of the time. Butterfield grants “Allen’s comments concerning bloody knives were incriminating, and stand as one of the few facts said to implicate him”, but of the author’s “points of proof”, offered as vindication of his case, “The thirteen points cited by Graysmith’s character in this final summation scene do not implicate Allen in the Zodiac crimes”. Bill Armstrong (Edwards) called Graysmith’s chapter about Allen “hogwash”. Ken Narlow (Donald Logue) rated the factual accuracy of Graysmith’s book 7/10, “noting that he did not believe the book had been written to be a factual account but was intended to be entertainment”.
Evidently, Butterfield has a vested interest in shutting down speculation, which seems reasonable, given so many in the serial-killer field appear to be willing to play creative with “facts” and “evidence” in order to make a name for themselves with a new “supportable” theory. So when he shuts down possible Manson links, or other victims, or anything other than there being one killer, it’s an understandable attempt to limit and curate the terrain, but it isn’t very useful when seeking to consider the phenomenon as a whole.
He’s dismissive of Steve Hodel fingering his dad for the crime – dad certainly seems to have been an entirely suspect, twisted individual, even without responsibility for the Black Dahlia, but whether he’d have still been active at this point, less still encroaching on the CIA’s promulgation of their new-found serial-killing programme, is debatable. Butterfield comments “Steve Hodel has not presented any credible evidence to implicate his father in ANY murder, let alone the Zodiac crimes” He further suggests “Theorists who have been discredited, debunked and dismissed are always quick to cry conspiracy with claims that authorities are concealing the truth which would prove their theories, and Hodel is right on schedule”.
In the case of a potential Manson link, Butterfield focuses on debunking Howard Davis’ claims of a coverup of Mansonite Bruce Davis’ responsibility for the crimes (because, essentially, prosecuting him for Zodiac too would be a whole lot of hassle). Certainly, the way Butterfield tells it, Davis’ (Howard’s) case crumbles into nothing. But that’s not to say it isn’t reflective of a web of darker deeds afoot (particularly if the Manson murders were a psyop).
Of which, Butterfield is one to poo-poo vast conspiracies, which is not only no fun at all. It’s just not the way the world doesn’t turn: “The facts indicated that the most logical and plausible explanation was that one man was responsible for the crimes and the letters. Other scenarios required many coincidences, conspiracies, and copycat killers… In his letters and in telephone calls to police, the Zodiac claimed credit for six specific crimes and mentioned one other attack but did not identify the victim… Despite the many theories and the Zodiac’s vague references to possible unidentified victims, the available evidence does not connect the killer to crimes other than the original six cases traditionally attributed to the Zodiac”. So there may not be closure, but it’s all still essentially very tidy. Right?
In Programmed to Kill, Dave McGowan has less details on Zodiac, in the anomalous sense, than serial killer cases where there is a suspected perp, but he does call on some notable points in support of his thesis, where the sprees typically display dissociative identity disorder/MKUltra programming of the serial killer with alters, or affiliation to satanic cults, and crime and contract hits of the actual serial killer. According to the later FBI script, “For instance, serial killers are said to act alone, driven to do so only by their own private demons… It is also claimed that serial killers target a particular type of victim, similar in age, gender, race, hairstyle, attractiveness, and other physical attributes… It is further claimed that serial killers follow a readily identifiable modus operandi, with the means of obtaining victims and the trajectory of the crime following a well-defined pattern”.
The links between cases and organised crime come up in the case we don’t see depicted in Zodiac (“A detective working the case noted that the male victim had recently learned of a major drug deal that was about to go down, and he had been talking openly about who was involved in the transaction” – that one was a shooting, not a stabbing). “He” used different weapons. The letters’ codes are mooted as suggesting“a background in naval intelligence”. There’s “what has to be the only known case of a serial killer showing up for work dressed in a logo-bearing costume” and “For unexplained reasons… the police dispatcher broadcast a description of a black perpetrator”, which allowed the cab killer to escape.
McGowan notes Belli “later became involved in the McMartin case, and then later conferred with Richard ‘The Night Stalker’ Ramirez and considered representing him”. He also mentions Ted Kaczynski, who was a subject of MKUltra experiments while he was a young student at Harvard. McGowan’s general steer, not entirely unreasonable, is this: “no fewer than six serial killers/mass murderers—Charles Manson, Stanley Baker, Edmund Kemper, Herbert Mullin, John Lindley Frazier, and the Zodiac—were all spawned from the Santa Cruz/San Francisco metropolitan area in a span of just over four years, at a time when ‘serial killers’ were a rare enough phenomenon that they hadn’t yet acquired a name”. McGowan is looking in the right direction, then, but if the reasoning behind these cases is to spread fear, to what extent does the phenomenon need to be genuine (taking our lead from the notion that the Manson Murders was not)? Cue disinformation agent Miles Mathis.
Mathis, like any good disinfo agent, offers up both genuine information and distraction, so encouraging distress in the parsing of which is which. He tends to a plausibly contrarian position, whereby not only did those accused of serial killing not do the crimes, but the crimes weren’t even done at all (I’ve read, although I can’t find a quote, that he called Dave McGowan CIA, which seems a bit on the pot and kettle side, as do his verifiable comments; he put McGowan in the category of “just more noise makers. They are creators of confusion and misdirection” as their research only “ends up solidifying the mainstream conclusions”. Doubtless Dave also faked his own death, per Miles standard analytical script). Mathis has it that “the Zodiac murders were faked from the first day, with the collusion of all the top people in San Francisco… As with the Tate event, we may assume the Feds had infiltrated the police, the newspapers, and all the other institutions involved, and that they were in control of the story”.
Miles also has the lowdown on Fincher, citing his various vehicles as having agency involvement: The Social Network (“Facebook is of course a DARPA creation”), Fight Club (“an Intel production”), House of Cards (“political propaganda of the most transparent sort”), The Game (“about an investment banker who gets involved in a completely faked world. Sound familiar?”) and Gone Girl (“…as in The Game, we have a fake inside a fake”).
While Fincher’s interests are writ large for all to see, such that Miles’ reasoning is almost too obvious, the different Mathis and McGowan’s different perspectives each have merit. Miles tends away from “the hoodoo” that would scare and confuse, so those calling the shots wouldn’t really get mind-control-programmed assassins to go around killing people; they’d just fake it. I have no faith in such a rationale beyond the assessment of which option would be most practical (after all, Miles admits to the adverse effects of the vaccine, so what does he think? They’d be squeamish?) I expect it would come down to whatever suits their purposes most effectively. Which may vary according to a given instance. But no, I don’t buy his relatively benign assessment of TPTB being merely “thieves and liars”.
Generally then, one might suggest Fincher is responsible for stitching Allen up – whether or not he was involved, the sole guy, or entirely innocent of the charges – in the way most of the alleged serial killers McGowan documented were caught or stitched up. The question would be why that didn’t that happen on this occasion. The alternative is Miles’ take: Allen’s innocent because the crimes never happened. I do tend to the position that the closer one scrutinises these conspiracies, the further one recedes getting to the nub of them.
You can pick another Miles favourite, JFK, where Oliver Stone, in his film, was either trying to present all the possible threads or hopelessly confuse his audience with an overstewed brew of suspects (as per Miles, JFK didn’t die; he went underground. However, in contrast to Mathis’ thesis, Jr is not in dad’s gang). On the face of it, Fincher seems to have been more singularly directed, since his movie ascribes chapter and verse to the FBI serial-killer handbook, and so lays the groundwork for Mindhunter.
Indeed, the possibility of killers acting in tandem is dismissed as a red herring, satanic cults is radio scuttle butt, and the police are so evidently mystified that there couldn’t possibly be a joined-up conspiracy; an intrepid amateur is needed to get to the heart of the matter. Because Fincher goes off half-cocked, sticking to the form of an unsolved case if not the credo of it, Zodiac emerges as an unsatisfying affair, one of uneven performances, scenes and structure. It isn’t just that it does itself a disservice in its treatment of the case, it’s that it fails to reward as rounded, coherent movie.