Sunday, January 13, 2008

What's Your Sign?

It happened again.

This past Saturday, we were having such a good time with our guest Craig Shutt, Mr. Silver Age, on John and Dave's Pop Culture America, that we ran long and some stuff got dropped from the show.

So here is one of those stuff things in easy-to-read English text form. Hope you like it:

Zodiac (d. David Fincher)

I like puzzles. Crosswords, acrostics, cyphers, sudoku, you name it. I'm not terribly good at them, mind you. Nonetheless, I nearly always give them a go when they appear in my morning paper.

But much as I enjoy them, I am not as obsessed with them as Robert Graysmith.

Robert Graysmith was a novice cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle in the late 1960s when the taunting, often encrypted Zodiac Killer letters started arriving on the Editor's desk. He was among the first to solve the code the killer used (though not the very first) and became obsessed with solving a much bigger puzzle: the identity of the killer who so terrorized the North Bay California area in the 1960s and 1970s.

David Fincher's Zodiac is based on Graysmith's memoir. The book tells the fairly straightforward tale of the appearance of the Zodiac Killer and the subsequent investigation. Although the killer was never arrested or tried, both the book and the movie make a pretty convincing case for the real identity of the Zodiac.

But that's not really what Fincher is after here.

Your odds of being murdered by a serial killer are infinitesimal. You have a better chance of dying from falling out of bed or being accidentally harpooned. You could win the biggest pay-off any lottery has ever had three times over, and still you would not have beaten the odds that a serial killer's victims have.

So what's with the big terror? What's with the fascination? What is with the over-reaction?

In 1995's Se7en (see: "Numb3rs" wasn't the first one), director David Fincher told the tale of a murderous serial killer named only "John Doe" (a memorable Kevin Spacey) who staged elaborate tableaux with his victims, each illustrating one of the seven (se7en?) deadly sins. Both the killings and the movie were the work of a twisted genius. And neither one had much to do with reality.

In reality, most serial killers are petty, unimaginative types, acting out some horrid, addled feverish delusion. In reality, serial killers are as rare as six-leafed clovers.

The Zodiac was such a one. He wasn't staging any elaborate sermons to be "puzzled over and studied and followed forever." He just shot some kids, stabbed a few others, shot a cabbie. Awful to be sure, but the whole North Bay area was held in a grip of terror over this guy for years. Thousands of man-hours were spent dashing from place to place whenever he wrote a letter saying, "Boo!"

And what David Fincher is after in Zodiac is the answer to the question: "Why?"

Jake Gyllenhaal, in the best performance of his young career, plays Robert Graysmith himself, and gives the character an intense, quizzical stare, the look of a man just waiting for something to cross his path and obsess him. At a subconscious level, it's almost a relief for him when the Zodiac begins his correspondence. Robert Downey Jr. in yet another seemingly off-hand, casually damaged role, is hard-drinking crime reporter Paul Avery, at first intrigued by the killer he becomes part of his own story when a speculative comment in one of his early articles causes the Zodiac to threaten him by name. And Mark Ruffalo also does a nice job as the detective who comes the closest to putting all the pieces together.

They all spend time trying to figure out the "who?" But the movie keeps looking for the answer to the question: "why?" Why devote so much time and energy and brainpower and sacrifice to solve this puzzle. Downey sums it up best: "Do you know more people die in the East Bay commute every three months than that idiot ever killed? He offed a few citizens, wrote a few letters, then faded into footnote."

The movie most nearly approaches an answer to its main question in the dark, haunted eyes of Jake Gyllenhaal, staring intently at the Zodiac's latest cypher. Cyphers, by the way, that aren't even that complex. Any moron with a library card could have constructed them.

But we're intrigued by the puzzle. And there's a certain portion of the populace that enjoys being afraid, whether they admit it or not, whether there's real cause or not.

And in the Zodiac, they found an ideal object for their disproportionate fear.

3 1/2 stars

A footnote of my own: I'm reviewing this film on the occasion of the release of David Fincher's Director's Cut DVD. This is yet another film whose DVD release has been a sad indictment of the home video industry. About five months ago, Zodiac was released in a bare-bones edition on DVD and the first thing you saw after you popped it into your player was an ad for the much better edition that was due in January of 2008. I've already stopped purchasing DVDs on their initial release, because I just assume now that the studios will screw me and try to make me buy the same movie twice. This is a tremendous film that I wholeheartedly recommend, but the practices of home video distributors are cynical and crass and should be thwarted at every opportunity. DVD buyer beware.

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