Myth trumps fact in David Fincher's enigmatic 'Zodiac'

City Paper

OK, so Ted Cruz does not once make an appearance in “Zodiac.” But that ridiculous meme, which circulated this past election and posed the Tea Party-pushing Senator and Presidential hopeful—felled, like all others by Donald Trump—as the infamous serial killer does have something to do with David Fincher’s puzzling detective film about dead ends, screening at the Senator Theatre this week. Namely, in both this year's endless, chaotic election season and in the story of the Zodiac Killer, an on-again, off-again murderer in the Bay Area from the late '60s into late '70s with a keen understanding of how to manipulate the media, it is image and perception rather than facts and real life that matter most.

We mostly experience the Zodiac through the eyes of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a die-hard cruciverbalist who works as a cartoonist for the Chronicle when the Zodiac begins sending letters and hints to the press and the police. Graysmith is our surrogate for heightened obsession that feeds on us—and shows the way we're susceptible to conspiracy and alternative narratives that make events larger-than-life.

Graysmith's sweet and innocent kind of character would feel a bit more cliché if not for Gyllenhaal’s charm and sincerity—we are regularly reminded that he is indeed an Eagle Scout when people accuse him of being "a boy scout." That he never swears for example, is less a cheap character tic, than a hint at the kind of ridged code that informs his life long before he continues trying to solve the mystery of the killer years after the investigators, played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, have given up on the case.

Unlike other Fincher films ("Seven," "Fight Club," "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo") the camerawork in “Zodiac” is steady and precise rather than overtly stylish and it creates a slow-burn procedural feel that favors hard facts and illuminating minor details. Even a tour-de-force shot, such as one where we follow the delivery of the Zodiac’s first letter in a long tracking shot through the Chronicle building, is as much about building atmosphere as cinematic pyrotechnics. The arrival of this letter is deserving of such a scene—it's the letter that begins the Zodiac's P.R. campaign which will keep San Fransciso residents in their homes after dark and will inspire Hollywood ("Dirty Harry's" plot is in part based on the Zodiac's killer actions) and in turn, inspire copycat murders and move people like Graysmith to dedicate their lives to investigation.

Once the letter arrives, we're privy to a quick exploration of journalistic ethics: Should they publish this letter and give voice to a madman? Is it news? Does publishing it make it news? They publish it. And then the Zodiac goes further, threatening in a letter to go on a shooting spree, and fire at school buses and pick off children if they do not. From there, the Zodiac is in control of the narrative and news-worthy-ness, "truth," newspaper sales, and more blur together all thanks to a trumped-up legendary persona that still lives on in our public consciousness to this day.

In Chronicle reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), we have a character who is the opposite of Graysmith—cynical in all the ways that Graysmith is super sincere. As the Zodiac mythos builds, Avery tells Graysmith that not even half of the murders that the Zodiac claimed to have committed can be connected back to him based on any evidence. Avery luxuriates in Graysmith's school boy surprise and says, "Bobby, you are almost disappointed." Even our pure-of-heart hero isn't let off the hook here. It's a small moment that expresses the way that we are all drawn to darkness and the lure of conspiracy. As "Zodiac" slinks along and focuses on Graysmith's ongoing fascination with Zodiac, even if it means ignoring his loved ones and day job, the quest becomes dogged yet debatably pointless—it is not a spoiler to note that we never really learn who was the Zodiac.

Conspiracy perhaps, curdled this election and eventually, "Ted Cruz is the Zodiac" felt quaint almost (especially because if there was anybody who internalized the Zodiac's monstrous form of attention-getting, it is president elect Donald Trump). Some believed that Donald Trump was planted to give Hillary Clinton a win. Some still believe that Clinton has a body double to cover for her when she is deathly sick. The media was thought by many to have been conspiring against Trump and there were many theories about the way that the election was being rigged in Clinton’s favor before the election took place. That Clinton had “something” to hide in her emails persisted and extended just a week before the election even though the FBI has ruled more than once now that there was not enough evidence to suggest any kind of criminal intent from extensive investigation. These conspiracies live on stronger than before because there is such firm distrust in our government system and also because there's a thrill in believing in something under the surface that only those looking deep enough uncover. More recently, there is talk of "fake news" and possibly, Russian hackers. Donald Trump, who won the election, just floated the idea that millions of votes were illegal. Even the victor is tempted by an alternate version of events, one that's more grand than real life.

Director Fincher understands that it's the idea of the Zodiac that matters more than the Zodiac himself—and it was the mysterious killer's savvy that allowed him to create an inflated and often false portrayal of his identity which he used to manipulate the public through media and playing to deep-seated fears and unrest. We never see the Zodiac's face and cleverly, it seems as though different actors play the Zodiac, so his physicality shifts and adjusts depending on the scene; he remains a slippery, almost mythic presence. Meanwhile, Graysmith spend hours and hours solving ciphers, reading at the library, and investigating dead-end leads even when there had been months and months without a new Zodiac letter or killing. He has to keep going. Siphoning through this information to arrive at a truth that matches with the little known about the suspect—a legend larger than themselves—seems insurmountable and ultimately disappointing.

When Graysmith locates who he believes to be at the center of this grandiose enigma, it's a man working at Ace hardware, hardly a horrifying evil mastermind. It doesn’t fit with the profile living in the collective consciousness of the public and we're not entirely sure if this is the right guy after all. It is a purposefully anti-climactic representation of how truth is bound to disappoint in an increasingly corrupt and uncertain world.

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