Despite feigned disgust and howls of self-righteous fury to the contrary, the morbid curiosity surrounding serial killers is no mystery. At bottom, and without the thin veneer of respectability to cover our collective tracks, we admire the sick bastards; not excusing and endorsing their crimes, per se, but tipping our caps in wide-eyed wonder at their ability to so construct a self-contained world of deliberation and mad logic that for years at a stretch, they can go undetected by neighbors, loved ones, and police alike. Society itself — including, potentially, any one of us — is a mere plaything for the killer’s amusement; a toy that enables them to live at the center of attention, yet with a godlike sense of anonymous invulnerability. And in the case of the infamous Zodiac killer, the “subject” of the new David Fincher film, this elusiveness takes on a near-mythical status, as the killer was never actually caught, though healthy suspicions remained well into the 1990s. But the man in question, Arthur Leigh Allen, died of a heart attack before he could ever be charged, so the case itself — circumstantial, but powerfully so — was buried with the most likely suspect. And so the perverse love affair rolls on; a man kills, teases the authorities for years, coming and going with apparent ease, and the sense of revenge that accompanies all violent crime remains unfulfilled.
So while most murders, committed by those familiar to us and with understandable motivations (greed, lust, blind rage), remain curious but ordinary, it is the serial killing that tends to stimulate the best drama. Because the killings are seemingly arbitrary and unmotivated (though, as we know, there is often a pattern to insane behavior), we are treated to the initial investigations, baffled detectives, bleary-eyed reporters, and obsessed observers, all trying their best to help stop the killings, while using their own brand of reason and know-how to outthink the evil genius. Zodiac is no different in that respect, and though “ordinary” in that it presents the crimes, cuts to legwork and pursuit, and back to more crimes, it stifles the sensationalism in favor of a decidedly unromantic unraveling of lives cruelly affected by a man they never come to know. Hence the aura of power, and a serial killer’s ability to hold an entire city hostage. Still, Zodiac has no grand ambitions (except in its epic length); it is a film set mostly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but outside of the fashions, cars, and music, there is no attempt to use the killings as a metaphor for innocence lost, or even get a sense of what “we” were thinking back in that time of turmoil. Usually I am frustrated with movies that fail to grasp larger contexts (even accidentally), but this time, it made sense to narrow the focus to a dedicated few.
One such man, artist and San Francisco Chronicle employee Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a solitary figure; a nerdy sort who is compelled to draw, yet is suddenly taken by — and eventually obsessed with — the serial killings that transfix the newsroom. The Zodiac killer sends letters to the editor, along with cryptic hints and bizarre codes, all hinting at possible clues. Robert has no right to be interested in the case (and the film doesn’t explain how he is involved if his job is presumably that of editorial cartoonist), but it soon takes over his life, even to the point where he begins to work on a book that will eventually be the inspiration for this movie. During the course of the case, Robert meets (and marries) a young woman named Melanie (Chloe Sevigny), who, admittedly, inhabits the “thankless spouse” role so common in crime stories. You know, the one who, at some point, cries, “This case! You care more for this stranger than you do your own children!” She’s largely in the shadows and poorly defined, but rather than being a weakness of the script, I believe she is portrayed exactly as she is seen by Robert himself. Here is a man who, by all appearances, has no business even being in a relationship, and yet suddenly finds himself immersed in events that threaten to tear his world apart. It’s bloody, violent, sexy, and dangerous, and he feels empowered for probably the first time in his life. It’s what obsessions provide, after all — a sense of purpose, validation; a life lived in service to something. It’s also a distraction, of course, which Melanie should have sensed far sooner than she did. That she eventually leaves him surprises no one.
There’s also Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), your standard “seen it all” cop who keeps the press at bay, only to fall into Robert’s obsession by the end. David works on the case for years, mostly with William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), but after being accused of sending a phony Zodiac letter to resurrect the case, he is reduced to outlaw status, which allows him to feed Robert information and hunt down new leads. Ruffalo is finally allowed to escape his usual burden of being the faithful, nice-to-a-fault boyfriend type (as well as atone for his truly awful performance in the maddening All the King’s Men remake), but he’s still as hangdog as ever, which may eventually prove to be his undoing as an actor. It is impossible, for example, to imagine him as truly sinister or menacing, as any aggression would appear to be quickly subdued by mellowness and an urge to lay down for a nap. Still, he’s compelling for one of the few times since You Can Count on Me, and he’s sufficiently defined to create a sense of empathy as he fails year after year to find that final piece. Still, David is not the sort of man who would derive redemption from the case, unlike the borderline Robert. It really is a job; one to fulfill, but not be fulfilled by.
But the real star turn is Robert Downey, Jr. as Paul Avery, a chain-smoking, cynical journalist who works the crime beat, but only between bouts of self-loathing and sarcasm. It is his news story, after all, and eventually he becomes a target of the Zodiac killer, but only as a means of torment. We all know that Paul would never really be harmed, after all, for who else would bring the killer’s story to light day after day? Some believe that the threats started to come once Paul accused the killer of being a latent homosexual in one of his stories, which would have been remarkably accurate had Arthur Leigh Allen ever been proven guilty. Downey, as usual, dominates every scene he is in, largely through body language and facial expressions, as his ticks and mannerisms, far from self-conscious, become fully realized traits of a believable character. There is an unnatural confidence to the man; an air of superiority that avoids vanity, as if he alone understands the world, but has no real need of using it to humiliate others. He’s utterly fascinating to watch, and although he disappears for a time once he leaves the paper for the Sacramento Bee (and drunken “retirement”), his brief return is a reminder of how much the film misses him when he’s off-screen. I would have preferred him as the central character, though he would have been all wrong for Gyllenhaal’s role. Downey is never the young upstart; he’s too wise and weathered to pretend he has anything new to learn.
So while the film occasionally traffics in the elicit and the nasty, it is more investigative than shocking, and unlike Fincher’s Seven, the criminal acts themselves do not take center stage. After all, the Zodiac killer was rather straightforward (shootings and stabbings), and even resorted to cliché now and again to throw authorities for a loop (as when he murdered a simple cab driver, a striking diversion from the usual “lover’s lane” types). What speculation we do get regarding motive could be as simple as sexual inferiority projected externally, or even a sense of rage after being fired for child molestation. Whatever the spark, it is clear that just about every person has ever been tagged with the label “serial killer” has had a deep mental illness connected with, and spurred by, sexual confusion, and the best available suspect in this case is no different. At some point in his life, he began to connect sex with violence, and it’s been a compulsive battle between the two ever since. But Zodiac’s undoing, such as it is, would grant the film an unearned sense of justice. Perhaps, then, it is as simple as saying that the madness of a serial killer is less detrimental, less toxic, than the madness experienced by those whose identities become linked with them, especially when the obsession itself remains open-ended. Zodiac learned how to live with himself (after all, he never betrayed his true identity), but can the same be said of the cops and reporters on the case?
Perhaps the personal destruction would not be so severe, or even occur at all, if everyone involved adopted the same attitude as star attorney Melvin Belli (played by Brian Cox, as if channeling Marlon Brando from Superman). Belli received calls and letters from the Zodiac killer, and even a demand to appear on a morning talk show to have, I’m guessing, a casual chat. Belli is simply another orchestrated mouthpiece for the killer’s lust for the limelight, but Belli understands that, and as such refuses to feel too deeply. He’s brash, pompous, and completely taken by the celebrity culture, which might be the only means of survival in our media age. Those lacking in ironic detachment, or possession of impenetrable armor, are doomed to despair, more so given the seemingly random nature by which rewards and punishments are distributed. Fame is afforded to the untalented, the unwise, and the irrelevant, while the dedicated, the honest, and the well-intentioned are banished to the hinterlands, if the culture even stoops to notice them at all. Sure, Robert wrote a book on the subject, but it never feels like an attempt to secure fame. His efforts reek of nobility, as if he’s using his knowledge to secure the common good. It simply won’t do. Serial killers are now of, by, and for the mass media, and can never be separated from its ubiquitous gaze. Yes, it involves death and pain, but it’s also a party; the logical result of a culture committed, above all, to the idea that the greatest curse is to be left behind the velvet rope. Perhaps that, in essence, is what truly drives men like Robert over the edge regarding the Zodiacs of the world — to capture the public’s fascination, lust, and utter devotion without ever having to step from the shadows. Popularity from a privileged position, without a trace of accountability.