Zodiac ★★½

Carried by very specific performances marked by memorable mannerisms and often humorous dialogue made undeniably unnerving given its purported historical accuracy and disturbing subject matter, Zodiac is a slick (and overlong) piece of filmmaking that in the end amounts to little more than an empty, perplexing spectacle that hides more secrets than it reveals.

I have avoided this film for a long time despite hearing great things about it because I'm not much for diving deep into the world of real-life serial killers. I can watch a Fulci horror film every day of the week (well, almost), but something that's supposed to be based on fact of such a disturbing nature is often something I tend to avoid. In fact, historical films in general tend to trouble me because I know that as a matter of course certain details tend to be embellished, rearranged, excised, or inserted to serve the constraints, parameters, and rhythm of cinema. In other words, despite how attentive to the "truth" that a filmmaker claims or intends to be, it is absolutely invariable for elements of subjectivity, perspective, personal bias, and/or an unstated "agenda" to enter into a work, either intentionally or unintentionally. In short, the "truth" is always a moving target even in a historical or "real-life" tale.

And I say this having written an award-winning screenplay about a real life historical figure. Even in my desperate attempt to simply tell a heroic and relatively unknown story about America's history, I found myself having to create certain events wholesale to better serve the page-count, three-act structure, or to fill in gaps I didn't know or didn't serve my theme, even after having interviewed the real life person my story was based on and conducting tons of research on the subject.

About his 2007 film, which was in part based on a book written by Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film), director David Fincher stated to the New York Times that he wouldn't "use anything in this book that we don’t have a police report for.” At the same time he openly states that his intention for the film was to "make a movie that posthumously convicts" Arthur Leigh Allen (played in the film by John Carroll Lynch). An interesting statement. Is he interested in finding the truth or convicting a suspect? Those are different things that hopefully should intersect, but Fincher explicitly states that his intention is to convict a person, which seems to be an intent in total disregard for that ellusive semblance of truth. The reason I was even more disturbed by Fincher's statement than I would have been at face value is because there is evidence to suggest that Graysmith's book is at best flawed and at worst, nothing more than an attempt to create a case against an arguably innocent Allen for unstated or unknown reasons.

I'm not here to necessarily debate or analyze the case itself. Quite frankly I'm just not that interested, and as I stated, I try to steer clear of topics like this in general due to their disturbing nature. That said, I will say that I got this feeling throughout the proceedings on screen that we as an audience were being fed an unnamable agenda about the Zodiac killer that just didn't sit right with me. I could literally sense a very specific narrative being served up to me that left me uncomfortable to say the least. 

Dave McGowan is a deceased researcher who wrote a book that I haven't read but have heard a lot about called, Programmed to Kill: The Politics of Serial Murder, in which he draws a connection between the phenomenon of serial killers that, let's be honest, is virtually nonexistent today in 2021, having been "replaced" by another phenomenon, that of the mass shooter, to the government and/or intelligence apparatus. 

While watching this film, I was struck by how the Zodiac killer is portrayed carrying out his crimes, with his use of specific calibers of bullets and specific firearms that just screamed military, government, and/or intelligence background to me. The fact that this possibility (that the killer was a former or current government agent or operative) is never addressed in the film is notable. At no point does any one suggest that the killer might have military or law enforcement training.

For context, it's important to recognize that at the same time these murders were being carried out, the United States was in the final stages of executing the notorious Phoenix Program in Vietnam (Douglas Valentine has a harrowing book on the subject), in which government-trained assassins were conducting deep black ops psychological operations against the civilian populace in that country, which involved terrible crimes of murder, summary executions, torture, and the like. William Colby ran this program and then went on to head up the Central Intelligence Agency in 1973. What I'm getting at is there seems to me to be a possibility that there may be a relationship between these covert activities and the shocking spate of serial killers running rampant across the country, injecting fear into the American populace from the late 1960's to the 1980's, with many of them originating in Northern California.

What is interesting to me is that the fear "campaign" waged upon the populace during this time period in America has resulted in permanent behavioral changes in American society. Gen Xers like myself can surely remember the era in which kids just left the house in the morning and ran around all day, only coming home for dinnertime, with our parents literally having no idea (nor, apparently much of a care) where we were all day. I can't name specifically when that dynamic changed, but by the time I started having kids of my own in the mid-2000's it was clear a cultural shift had occurred. Those free-wheeling days are gone forever, in part, I would argue, due to the serial killer phenomenon.

Whether there is indeed a nefarious hidden correlation between serial killers and government entities given these undeniable behavioral and seismic societal changes we've witnessed over the last 50 years, it's clear to me that Fincher's work here is emblematic of an attempt to steer the cultural consciousness towards a very specific conclusion about the identity of the Zodiac killer and pass it all off as undeniable “fact.” 

Mind you, it doesn't seem that Fincher is very interested in "the why," or motive, with the connection to The Most Dangerous Game tenuous at best in my opinion, given none of the victims knew they were being hunted at the time of their death, in contrast to the protagonist of the 1932 film and the short story the film is based upon. Nor does Fincher seem interested in explicitly connecting the news media, or rather assigning some level of culpability to the news media, to the murders themselves, given the exploitative coverage of the event in my opinion seems to have undoubtedly influenced the killer (or killers). Again, this possibility (that the media had a role to play in "abetting" the killing) seems to have hardly been investigated throughout the narrative of the film.

Make no mistake, the film is quite competently produced and is buoyed by interesting character work from Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Mysterio, though in my opinion these "characters" are little more than caricatures than they are living, breathing people. I have read elsewhere that the filmmaker was interested in demonstrating a theme of how people can become obsessed with an idea, that often leads to ruination in the obsession-seekers' personal lives. In this film, I suppose Jake Gyllenhaal life falls apart, but this was all presented in such a perfunctory way, with Chloë Sevigny, a talented actor, just struggling to make her way through her rote scenes with a terribly thinly-written character. And was causation, or mere correlation, at play with respect to Tony Stark’s alcoholism and the Zodiac events? I’m not sure, but I don’t believe Fincher convinces me that Robert Downey’s life falling apart is directly attributable to the killings. 

Bottom line, I don't feel like this film really answers anything (in fact I think it generates more questions than answers) and I don't feel personally changed or moved after having seen this. Like I said, the performances are solid here and the film features some great contemporary actors doing a lot of “acting,“ so the movie is perfect for delivering one's Gyllenhaal or RDJ or Ruffalo fix. Its evident that many, many people like this film, so my take is definitely an outlier. Ultimately, I don't regret seeing this film, and it's not "bad" per se, but I do feel like in watching this film I was the subject of some kind of psychological operation, the object of which I am not completely certain.

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