Allow Stevi Costa to inform you that her grandmother’s bachelor cousin may have very much been the titular serial killer in her re-view of David Fincher’s Zodiac.
My grandmother’s cousin Jerry was a quiet, loner bachelor with a love of WWII history, model airplanes, coin collecting, antique rifles, secret societies, and some very unique pornography. When Jerry died in 2008, I inherited the coin collection and the porn. (More on the porn later.) David Fincher’s Zodiac came out in 2007, and around that time, dementia quickly seized hold of Jerry. My parents and I spent some time that year getting Jerry’s estate in order, combing through his various documents and collections to prepare his end-of-life care and ensure that his estate could cover care in the Masonic hospice he had requested in his estate documents. During this process, we began to notice the content of his collections all seemed to add up to a portrait of a man who could have easily been a serial killer. After I saw Fincher’s Zodiac, I started theorizing with my mother, who loved mystery and crime fiction, that Jerry might have been the Zodiac killer.
The Zodiac was never caught, went dormant for a long time, and certainly hasn’t killed anyone since Jerry died, my mother observed.
I don’t really have a good theory to back this up, except to say that sketches of the Zodiac do bear some resemblance to my grandmother’s bachelor cousin, and that Jerry had lived his entire life in the San Francisco Bay Area in a small ranch home he shared with his mother in Richmond, CA. The attack sites of the Zodiac murders were well within driving distance of his home. He liked guns and puzzles. A cryptogram cypher doesn’t seem beyond the scope of his interests. And his porn collection indicated an interest in family life, so that most of the Zodiac’s victims were young couples makes an amount of sense to me.
My mother and I never seriously pursued further investigation of these possibilities, but we both agreed that if Jerry had, in fact, been the Zodiac, it would explain a lot of things about this strange relative we shared.
Anytime someone mentions the Zodiac now, I think of Jerry. And then I tell people I may have inherited the Zodiac killer’s VHS porn, and that’s a great icebreaker at a party, let me tell you.
So, in remembrance of the serial killer I might be related to, I signed up to re-view Fincher’s Zodiac, which is super fun and engrossing for the first hour, and then quickly overstays its welcome once the narrative switches its investigative purview to SF Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (upon whose book the film is based, played by Jake Gyllenhaal) instead of lead reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr. looking fly as hell in late-‘60s duds). The first hour is a great ensemble film in which Greysmith, Avery, and Mark Ruffalo’s Inspector David Toschi work together to figure out what’s going on, but once a disgraced Avery is removed from the case, it becomes Graysmith’s dogged quest to solve an unsolvable series of crimes to the detriment of his personal life, and I’m less interested in that narrative than I am in the evolution of the Zodiac’s crimes and the ways in which the police and the press were used to propagate the myth of the Zodiac. And since I care about detectives, Graysmith never comes off as a capable one. I recognize that’s part of the point – that someone who wasn’t a reporter/detective, but a cartoonist, noticed the details in the composition of Zodiac’s cyphers before the detectives did, and therefore continued to be obsessed. But I found this hard to latch on to. It becomes a crime film without a detective or process of detection, and it falls flat to me in this regard.
It also did not go unnoticed by me that Graysmith’s girlfriend/wife in the film is played by Chloë Sevigny, which means that her entire role in this film is to react to a dude ignoring her in exactly the same ways the plot of American Horror Story: Hotel requires of her. In the latter case, her detective husband obsessed with a serial killer is played by Wes Bentley, rather than Jake Gyllenhaal, but, really, who can tell the difference between the two? Ryan Murphy certainly can’t.
It is a major problem that Sevigny is the only female character in this film and that she has nothing to do but wear the shit out of a pair of big ol’ 1970s clear-framed glasses and wear her hair stick straight. Sure, there are female voices in the audio clips of radio callers, news clips, the SF Chronicle’s editorial secretary, and, of course, murder victims, but these don’t count as roles so much as lines. Clea DuVall shows up later in the film looking hot as fuck as an inmate with some dirt on a Zodiac suspect, but her three minutes on screen seem insignificant within the 2 hour, 37 minute-running time focused on dudes doing dude stuff. Because this is a movie made by men, about men, and it can’t possibly imagine women as anything other than victims and wives. If I had to guess, I would estimate that women are onscreen in any capacity (seen or heard) for only 20 minutes of this film, and that’s just incomprehensible to me. Even hardboiled noir gives its women more than Fincher and writer James Vanderbilt do, and that just baffles me. I find it so hard to imagine that in 1968 there wasn’t a single female reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, and I find it absolutely unbelievable that even if there wasn’t, which I doubt, no one on the production team thought to imagine one.
But, my doubts about the gender composition of the editorial staff at the SF Chronicle in 1968 aside, the first hour or so of Zodiac is a lot of fun. The opening murder, which is so gorgeously filmed and scored with late-‘60s pop music, is stark, brutal, and exciting. The cinematography is overall very cool, capturing gorgeous shots of various parts of the Bay Area and then splattering them with blood when they become crime scenes. Everything is painted in the color palate of the 1970s, which is also the color palate of California: oranges, browns, blues. Cars are a big deal here, which also feels very California to me. Pop music floats over every montage to capture the era, usually layered with audio clips from radio shows, clips of the Zodiac’s voice, and other audio aspects to lend that true crime feel. Every compositional choice is great, and clearly comes from Fincher’s experience as a music video director. The use of sound and color here make this movie feel like it was made in the 1970s, and that makes it feel incredibly cool.
The script, though, isn’t nearly as cool as the package it’s in. As mentioned above, once the focus shifts from Avery to Graysmith, it becomes less interesting overall, but nonetheless has a couple of standout moments. I love that the script includes the detail of Zodiac survivor Michael Mageau saying, “Man, you really creeped us out,” before he is shot through the window of Darlene Ferrin’s car. This, coupled with Darlene’s earlier suspicion that she recognized the car that passes them at Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, suggests that Zodiac knew his victims – at least when it comes to the young couples he attacked. And while this should add a lot of texture to the investigation, it only comes up once again in the course of the film. I don’t know about you all, but since Mageau survived, it seems like this would be a course of investigation I’d want to pursue if I were Paul Avery or Inspector David Toschi. I don’t know enough about the real case to know if this was a significant detail that merely got overlooked in the media circus that surrounded the case, or if it’s something Vanderbilt wrote in that ended up on the cutting room floor. But it genuinely seems like an avenue worth investigating, and I bet if they had a more robust (re: diverse) team of detectives, this detail would have been followed up on.
I also love the way the Kathleen Johns roadside incident is written and filmed. When the Zodiac approaches her car to say her tire was loose, my My Favorite Murder instincts kicked in and I said to my dog, “Oh no no no no no no no.” (Incidentally, I learned while watching Zodiac that my dog knows the word “kill” and I am . . . very concerned.) This scene is the only one in the film that seems to capture the tension of the first murder for me, especially when Johns survives (just as Margeau does). Vanderbilt also captures some great tension in the scene where the Zodiac calls in to a morning news show, which seems to build toward a lead, but ultimately leads to more dead ends. There’s a great detail here that the Zodiac may have killed in order to make his headaches stop, but this, like the detail about Darlene knowing her killer, is also dropped. (These people are shitty detectives. Or maybe Graysmith and Vanderbilt are shitty writers. Or both!) But the best scene, perhaps, comes toward the end where Graysmith follows a lead into a Northern California basement and, having driven himself to near madness, believes he may be locked inside with the real Zodiac, and not prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (who obviously can’t be the Zodiac because he’s Twisty the Clown and this isn’t American Horror Story: Freak Show). Gyllenhaal, who I actually think is quite good in this in spite of how boring I find Graysmith as a character, places the panic of this realization so well.
I remember finding Zodiac beautiful but kinda boring ten years ago, and that’s largely still true, but the first hour – the part with all the murder – is an exciting recreation of what it might have been to be my mother, who turned 18 in San Jose, California in 1969 at the height of the Zodiac craze, and hear about these attacks in the media on a near-daily basis. And then to later think, you know, maybe all of those stories were about a strange relative of mine who likes guns, puzzles, and model airplanes.
The performances in this film are all good. Can’t say a bad thing about either the acting or the design here.
On her first date with Jake Gyllenhaal, Chloë Sevigny orders “penne vodka, but without the cream sauce.” Penne vodka is a cream sauce. What the hell does she think she’s ordering? That’s not how that works.
There’s an amazing shot of the Union 76 refinery in Rodeo, California – the town next to my hometown, and where I went to elementary school. (Famously also: hometown of Green Day!) It’s the coolest use of CGI because it’s a composite of an old photo and the current landscape and it looks really good. Also, it’s always cool to see my weird little corner of the Bay on film. Lots of films get the Bay Area wrong, but Fincher gets it really, really right.
Here’s the thing you’ve been waiting for, obviously: my Zodiac porn. When Jerry died, I took possession of his “videotapes.” They were indeed on VHS, and here’s what they were: one or two “barely legal” titles (which I have not watched), a copy of Ready to Drop 38 (a title featuring very pregnant women, which I have watched), and a series of videotapes produced by a private distributor in Arizona featuring women in their 30s/40s performing solo masturbation in a hotel room. Each of these is hand labeled with titles like “Susan – Sedona Inn” and accompanied by a handwritten note from the producer, instructing the viewer on what one should do with one’s cock while watching the film. Some of these private titles also feature pregnant performers. If you happen to be at my house, I would be happy to show you any of these tapes from my Zodiac porn collection. You sure learn a lot about a person by the porn they leave behind.