A conversation from Press Play about what Zodiac wants us to believe
This article originally appeared on IndieWire’s Press Play. Our thanks to PP and poobah Matt Zoller Seitz for the reprint.
Editor’s note: The following is a conversation about David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. It was inspired by Twitter conversation about whether it is, in fact, an ambiguous movie, as many have claimed, or if it only seems that way; if it’s open, closed, or somewhere in between.
The participants are Sarah D. Bunting, publisher of Tomato Nation and the true-crime blog The Blotter; Mike D’Angelo, film critic for the Las Vegas Weekly and a regular contributor to The A.V. Club, among other outlets; and Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic of New York and co-founder of Press Play.
Matt Zoller Seitz: Zodiac is very much an open-ended, in some ways deliberately frustrating movie. David Fincher directed the script by James Vanderbilt, which was based mainly on the writings of the film’s main character, the cartoonist turned amateur detective Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). One of the things that makes the movie stand out from other thrillers is how it sticks with a pretty conventional structure, and yet in the end, we don’t know who did it. The frustration of knowing that we don’t know is at the heart of the film’s power.
Sarah D. Bunting: It is and it isn’t ambiguous. It’s ambiguous about whodunnit, certainly, and has no choice in that regard; the case is unsolved, and it’s not one of those “technically open” cases (op. cit. Lizzie Borden) where everyone’s basically in agreement as to who did it but no charges were filed. Even the casting is ambiguous. The IMDb entry for the film lists four Zodiacs, played by three different dudes, none of whom is John Carroll Lynch’s character Arthur Lee Allen, or that creeper film archivist, Bob Vaughn. So there’s that.
But where I think the film is unambiguous is in its understanding that everyone involved with the case needs to have it solved, or to believe something; that until something final is arrived at, it’s going to torture the cops and the columnists and Graysmith.
Mike D’Angelo: I lean more much toward isn’t than is.
Zodiac was based on two books by Graysmith, both of which attempt to make the case that Arthur Leigh Allen was the killer. Indeed, the second book is called Zodiac Unmasked, and clearly means to accomplish precisely that. And the film, to its slight detriment (I do like it overall), follows Graysmith closely. In particular, the last 10 minutes make what I consider a pretty unequivocal case that Allen was the perp, and I just don’t see the maddening uncertainty claimed by the movie’s most rabid fans.
But I’m willing to be convinced!
Matt: I see Graysmith becoming increasingly convinced that he knows who did it, and increasingly frustrated that he can’t definitively prove it. But I feel like the movie draws a clear line between what Graysmith believes, or wants to believe, and what the script is telling that we can believe.
It kind of goes back to what Sarah was saying: that so much of the film’s energy comes from tapping that incredibly fierce desire to believe something, to have a definite answer. One of my favorite sayings is that I like ambiguity in art and certainty in life. Zodiac gets that, and I think to some degree, it’s about that. The story is ambiguous even though certain characters feel certain.
And here I want to share a fragment of a piece I wrote for my first blog, The House Next Door, back when Zodiac came out:
“It’s conventionally structured but unconventionally conceived and shot—a long, deliberately repetitious movie with an inconclusive ending about people whose obsession with justice bore no fruit. Its three central characters—Toschi, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith believe, like all driven movie heroes, that they can succeed where others failed; obsession gives them delusions of grandeur, alienates them from their colleagues and families and leads them to the edge of madness, but never to the truth.
Zodiac‘s 158-minute running time contains scenes that repeat as the story unfolds; the versions have different, often frustrating outcomes. About a dozen years after the killer’s first appearance, Toschi’s original partner (Anthony Edwards) retires, and Toschi lamely tries to repeat the shtick with his new partner, who isn’t having it; likewise, after Avery flames out from paranoia and substance abuse, his acolyte Graysmith tries to re-create their unlikely newsroom friendship with Avery’s replacement (Adam Goldberg) who can’t be bothered. Time changes everything but the narrative’s forgone conclusion (or non-conclusion). Nearly four decades after Zodiac’s first kill, his identity is still shrouded in darkness.”
Sarah: Yeah, I think you have three belief systems here: what the viewer believes; what Graysmith believes; and what the film believes.
It’s clear Graysmith believes that Allen is the guy; viewers will believe . . . that, maybe, or will look at the chyron postscript about Allen’s DNA (and the refusal of various jurisdictions to rule him out based on that) and think it’s not him.
I have to say, I don’t think the film “believes” anything one way or the other. It’s not as interested in the answer as it is in why these people have become so obsessed with the question.
Mike’s comment about the inconclusive ending being “maddening” to fans is interesting, though. Who would be a fan of this movie if they couldn’t tolerate not getting a definitive ruling at the end? (Unless you just really like Downey’s performance, which, fair enough.)
Mike: See, I feel like all three of the belief systems Sarah enumerates converge at the end. (Prior to that, I’m in complete agreement with both of you.) What Graysmith believes is clear. But in the last few minutes, we see him persuade Dave Toschi, the San Francisco detective played by Mark Ruffalo; everything about Ruffalo’s performance in that scene conveys dawning respect.
And the final scene, which I think was a huge mistake, doesn’t involve Graysmith at all—it depicts one of the Zodiac’s surviving victims positively identifying Allen from a photo lineup. Then every single sentence of the chyron scrawl at the end implicates Allen, apart from a couple of details they had to mention like the DNA mismatch (which gets undermined in the very same sentence). It’s not just Graysmith. The film buys into it too.