In the thread, "Is anyone else confused over all the critical acclaim The Social Network is receiving? It feels like a semi-decent “made for HBO” movie at, several of us had a good discussion about the film, Zodiac. Some couldn’t understand why some people thought so highly of the film. Some advocates of the film suggested that the film is really an examination of the nature of truth seeking in today’s world. Being part of the former group, I went into viewing the film (for the second time) with the interpretations of the latter.
I don’t think I’ve come to any strong conclusions about the film, but I haven’t spent any time trying to analyze and process the film; instead, I thought I would do some of that here in this thread. Let’s start with this question:
is the film really about the nature of truth seeking versus a typical police procedure?
I think there is some support for this view, as there are several elements that suggest this:
>Zodiac might stand for a type of medieval code (Graysmith mentions this from a book he read.). (The opening credits utilize some effects that show the code, and there is scene later one where words of the killer appear moving across the screen.) One could interpret this to mean that the truth is encoded; that it is something we feel we have to solve to understand;
>In the beginning of the film, we see the camera following the letter as it comes to the SF Chronicle and arrives to the desk of the editor’s secretary. This could suggest something along the lines of truth, in a message, coming to us;
>There are some details of the film that made me think of the problems the US intelligence community struggled to deal with information that might have prevented the 9-11 attacks. For example, one problem was the lack of integration and coordination between different branches of the agencies (too “siloed”). We see this in a scene when the SF inspector, Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), talks to police from different jurisdictions. Basically, they have failed to share information. (Paul Avery, the SF police beat writer, later also mentions that he could be the hub to coordinate information or something to that effect. This was in relation to his letter to the Department of Justice requesting that he head the investigation.)
>There are some scenes deal with the way the media interferes with truth seeking. Paul Avery (Downey Jr.) going to the TV claiming to have found Zodiac’s first victim.
For me, while these things lend support to the claim that the film is really about truth seeking, they seem to more like off-handed commentary, rather than parts supporting a larger theme of the film. Why do I feel that way? Well, at this point, I don’t feel like there is much more to support the interpretation (but I’m open to hearing other evidence). Instead, I feel like the film is really more about the hunt for the killer. On the other hand, if Fincher really hoped to reveal some deeper insights into the nature of truth seeking, I don’t think he succeeded; but, again, I’m very interested in hearing support to the contrary.
Finally, if there are any other interpretations or arguments to defendn this film—especially as one of the better films of the decade—I’d be interested in hearing them.
A metaphor for truth seeking: 1 – Just another police procedural: 0
And you vote that way because…
A Metaphor for Truth Seeking: 1 – Just Another Police Procedural: -2350980398502983502935
I’m not sure it’s a metaphor so much as it is an examination of the process of truth-seeking.
I’ll answer with some level of seriousness later tonight.
I would agree with Nathan, it definitely deals with truth seeking but Fincher seems to be approaching his examination through process. For me the film is mainly an examination of the nuts and bolts of conducting an investigation in the analog world. Most of the film is simply interested in the minutiae of the investigation, by the police, and also by Graysmith and Avery. But at a certain point in the narrative, as the case begins to leave many participants in its wake, it seems to become a film about trying to find the point in which a person can let go without feeling like they are giving up. In other words, Graysmith has to accept the fact that the Zodiac killer will probably never be brought to justice, and he has to find a way to give his search meaning for himself so he doesn’t feel like he gave up.
It’s about media-driven mass hysteria and obsession.
Another good but overrated Fincher film.
And what does film say about mass-driven hysteria and obession for you? (I agree the film touches on these issues, but I don’t think it reveals anything very insightful or meaningful about them.)
What does the film reveal by showing the details of an investigation in the analog world? Does it reveal something about investigation in the digital world or just the digital world in general?
OK, process of truth seeking. But what does the film really say about this?
I think that Fincher is merely trying to show how hard it was to conduct an investigation during this time. The difficulty in coordinating with other precincts, the amount of traveling a person has to do just to look at documents pertaining to the case etc… I don’t think he is really making any statements, or trying to reveal anything profound, he just wanted to show how difficult a task these people had in trying to solve this case in an analog world.
And yet, as 9-11 revealed, the problem of crime fighting/security is not any easier—in some ways, it might be a bit more difficult.
I’m not sure if that has anything to do with the world being digital though. It seems to me a lot of these current problems are to do with bureaucracy, and the unwillingness of different departments and agencies to share information. And also, I think fighting terrorism, which is generally on a global scale, is much different than a local police force solving murders.
I think the problems now have a lot to do with a digital world—if by digital we mean internet/computer dominated world. We have way quicker and easier access to a lot of information. That’s good in some ways, but bad in others. The bad: we have to sort through more “hay” to get to find the “needles.”
Moreover, is there any reason you feel governments were less bureaucratic than they are now?
To get to the second part first, not really, I think governments were just as bureaucratic then, but they have gotten larger, so that naturally is going to lead to more bureaucracy. I think you are correct in your assertion about the problems of internet dominated world. But I think when I am suggesting a digital world would have made it easier to crack the Zodiac case, I am referring more to the ability to do your job more efficiently, you get test results back faster, you don’t have to drive to another station to look at their evidence etc… Of course the bureaucratic element would still exist, but it would still be easier IMO.
Oh, and I realize I haven’t mentioned the most important breakthrough that would have helped them solve the case, DNA testing. I believe that the crime scenes were maintained so poorly, that by the time DNA testing had been invented they had no usable blood samples to be tested.
Oh, and I realize I haven’t mentioned the most important breakthrough that would have helped them solve the case, DNA testing.
Right, but that has little to do with an analog versus digital world, right? Ditto the amount of bureaucracy. In any event, I’m not really convinced that the film’s value or purpose—at least to a significant degree—lies in the way it shows the difficulty of crime fighting in an analog world.
@Jazz – I think this point that Bonemachine made is relevant:
But at a certain point in the narrative, as the case begins to leave many participants in its wake, it seems to become a film about trying to find the point in which a person can let go without feeling like they are giving up. In other words, Graysmith has to accept the fact that the Zodiac killer will probably never be brought to justice, and he has to find a way to give his search meaning for himself so he doesn’t feel like he gave up.
The main character in the film is Graysmith. It’s an insight into his obsession with this story, with trying to find the answer to it, and how it takes over and disintegrates his life. He wants very badly to understand this mystery, and he has to accept that it will always remain a mystery, and the more he tries to get closer to the truth, the more it eludes him.
A mad quest that leads to nothing. This is not a new story, i.e. I know I’ve seen this plot elsewhere, it’s like the search for the Holy Grail, or the Fountain of Youth. You could even say the first Indiana Jones movie was about this, because what happened when they opened the covenant? Death and destruction. Where they closer to heaven? Closer to power? Closer to the object of their quest? No. It melted the people who looked at the contents of the box.
So… another useless quest, circles and circles ending in nothingness.
Re: The Analog World
The exploration of the analog world is not the primary virtue of Zodiac, but I do count it as one of the secondary virtues. Consider just one basic thing: DNA sampling was not a part of the investigation, because DNA sampling (as we know it) wasn’t around at the time. The way that crime scenes were attended to, records kept, and communication across jurisdictions were all different than they are now. Much of the case hinges on these things. Zodiac is a detailed portrayal of a specific time period that involved certain methods of detection.
I’d call it a secondary virtue, though, because the Zodiac case was defined less by the deficiencies of the analog world than it was by the complexities of mass media. The case becomes what it does because the Zodiac uses major media outlets – newpaper and TV – to make a horrifying celebrity out of himself. His ability to attribute different things to himself through the media makes the case far more difficult.
The process that Avery, Graysmith, and Toschi each approach the case differently, through their personalities and their professions. To me, the film is about what the case does to them. Each one has to come to some terms with the not-knowing. For Avery it’s oblivion and mania; for Toschi it’s professional reserve; but for Graysmith it’s about knowing that he knows. There’s a point where he can’t prove, legally, who the Zodiac is, but he can prove it to himself. He can find data and draw conclusions that he can be comfortable with, even if it leads to nothing. This is why it’s important for him to see Aurther Leigh Allen at the hardware store. He has to see it for himself, not for anyone else.
And I think this is something that we all do. We don’t search for serial killers, but we do have our own personal process of knowing that we know. We see data, we run it through pre-set criteria, and we draw conclusions about it. I don’t think the film is a metaphor for truth-seeking, because it literally is about the process of seeking the truth (about the Zodiac), but I do think that we can extrapolate the process that we see in the film, brining it down to every day thinking and reasoning.
Zodiac is an epistemological thriller. It’s about knowing that you know even if you don’t know.
Yeah…well, I liked the film for the most part. Yes, it can be a metaphor for truth seeking (most films are one way or another) and it’s like the cliff notes version of a police procedural … but it kinda works. I liked the mystery behind it (and that they kept it a mystery more or less) and the difficulties police face in apprehending a suspect beyond the shadow of doubt – that was communicated pretty well. Overall though, it’s a flawed film because Fincher isn’t really that great of a director. There were some potentially great moments, such as the scenes with the victims … those could have been amazing and he approached them in the right way, but the tone was just uneven I felt.
Essentially, I liked where Fincher was going and what he was trying to do (most police films are too easily and thoroughly resolved), but he just doesn’t have the chops to pull it off without half-assing it.
Plus I find Gyllenhahl (or however one spells his ridiculous name) to be miscast in every film he’s ever starred in (that I’ve seen at least) so… there’s that too.
I think it said something about a serial killer’s ability to captivate a nation through notoreity-induced fear. The odds of being killed by a serial killer are a thousand times lower than the odds of getting in a car crash. The odds of getting killed in a simple robbery are also much higher than the odds of being killed by one specific murderer. Yet, because he managed to establish a personality for himself through the coded messages, people were terrified of him.
The killer made a bigger name for himself by entertaining people than he did by murdering people, and Gyllenhal’s character was mesmerized by this hype, even managing to convince himself that he alone was the one capable of solving the crime. That’s what I believe the film is about.
Of course, I agree with others that Fincher missed the emotional mark, as is his tendency.
The tone of the killing scenes really bothered me. They seemed to me like a scene out of a horror film, rather than a reproduction of history.
@Jirin: Yeah, I actually wanted him to go a step further in showing the raw emotion of someone being caught up in that situation (indeed, one’s helplessness would be horrifying!) but, despite the actors/actresses serviceable efforts, it didn’t work out that way for some reason.
Ha! How funny, Nathan, I TOTALLY forgot about the ending where he stares the killer in the face. His search for the guy and his life changing because of this search is the thing I remember most about this film.
That, and that attractive Mark Ruffalo… yum…. ;)
@Odi and Bone
Bone said, But at a certain point in the narrative, as the case begins to leave many participants in its wake, it seems to become a film about trying to find the point in which a person can let go without feeling like they are giving up. In other words, Graysmith has to accept the fact that the Zodiac killer will probably never be brought to justice, and he has to find a way to give his search meaning for himself so he doesn’t feel like he gave up.
I agree there is something to what you say. The structure of the film—namely, having three different individuals investigating the case—each reacting differently to it—while finally narrowing down the film to Graysmith—indicates some overarching idea or concept.
For me personally, I think Nathan’s interpretation—although I’m still not completely satisfied with it (which I’ll go into later).
Odi, I hear what you’re saying about the obession with a useless quest. That’s definitely a part of the film, but as you mention its not new; but the bigger problem with this theme is the film’s rather uninteresting handling of this issue—at least imo. Not only have we seen this in other stories and films, but the film is not really offering any fresh insight or treatment of this issue.
And I feel the exact same way towards the issue of media and media celebrity—and the problems this causes with solving a crime. I bet we could think of several other older films that have already dealt with this issue—and in much better ways.
I’d like to hear more about what you mean by “knowing that we know.”
As I mentioned I think your interpretation is the most compelling so far, but there’s something about it that seems hollow—not the interpretation so much as the actual film and the way it supports this interpretation. It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of substance or depth in the film to back up those ideas.
Here are some other thoughts/questions:
>What does the Zodiac killer represent? Is he “a” or “the” truth that we really want to know, but can never be known? Or does he represent something else? Does he not represent anything at all?
>What about the significance of the last scene of the only person who sees the Zodiac and testifies that Arthur Leigh Allen? Was this a tease on the part of Fincher? We seem to have discovered the identity of the Zodiac, only to learn in the end credits that Leigh died before he could be questioned and that partial DNA analysis could not link Leigh to the murder(s)—thus leaving the whole question in doubt.
>I’m not sure if this fits with Nathan’s ideas about “knowing that we know,” but with Graysmith there seemed to be a sense of irrational belief going on. Remember when he visits the woman in jail and insists that the name of the person was Rick—despite her constant denials? So, Graysmith may represent the people who must have and answer—and will find any answer that comes closest to satiate the need for closure(?), resolution(?) or some answer to this nagging question.
…but he just doesn’t have the chops to pull it off without half-assing it
I’d like to hear more about what you mean by this.
For me, it’s not chops, as in his abilities as a director, so much as a lack of depth and interesting ideas. My sense is that Fincher’s contribution to a film is not depth and insight—at least into some of these serious, philosophical issues. That has to come from another member of the crew—probably the screenwriter—as it did in Se7en, imo, and maybe even The Fight Club—but failed to do in Panic Room—and, imo, The Social Network—and maybe, Zodiac.
That has to come from another member of the crew—probably the screenwriter—as it did in Se7en, imo, and maybe even The Fight Club—but failed to do in Panic Room—and, imo, The Social Network—and maybe, Zodiac.
That’s exactly what I mean, it can’t apparently come from Fincher himself, directing it towards a certain vision, the vision has to already be there for him. Se7en and Fight Club has some decent ideas to work with – Fincher can’t make a poor script good, he doesn’t have the chops. A great director can take a horrible script and make something decent out of it … I’m not saying Zodiac has a horrible screenplay, it doesn’t, but Fincher doesn’t have the vision to make it standout as more than it is.
@ Odi …a person can let go without feeling like they are giving up
Yes, and Fincher agrees:
I looked at this as a newspaper movie. My model was `All the President’s Men.’ You piece the thing together with a bit of info here, a hunch there, and you make mistakes long the way, and maybe you end up with an supportable conclusion as to the when and where and how. … And maybe, with someone like Zodiac, even he couldn’t provide an answer, I don’t know . . . at some point, even if it makes you crazy, you have to say, the story’s over. That’s the story, that’s all we have. Not every question can be answered.
I TOTALLY forgot about the ending where he stares the killer in the face.
Per Matt Parks:
Fincher actually has three different actors—Richmond Arquette (1st and 2nd), Bob Stephenson (3rd) and John Lacy (4th)—portray Zodiac, none of whom are the actor ( John Carroll Lynch )who played Arthur Leigh Allen. Not a lot of people I’ve talked to have noticed this—it’s a bit more difficult to see on video—but it adds a nice touch of uncertainty about Graysmith’s hypothesis regarding the killer’s identity.
This was the last Fincher film I liked. The era has certainly been well represented in terms of paranoia and uncertainty by other films, but the thing that Fincher did pretty well was to show how the search for the truth grinds people down and it becomes a matter of ego, like it is with whoever Zodiac might be. Justice is an abstract idea that gets subjugated to a process. And when that process has become the object of one’s fixation whether it be solving puzzles or hunting for clues, you had better be careful or you are going to get too emotionally involved. I know it covers familiar territory that he’s already covered. And Jake Gyllenhaal has probably not cast well as Graysmith, but the others did a decent job.
Thanks for the quote Robert, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is indeed the first movie for me that comes to mind in regards to ZODIAC. It is the anti-ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN, philosophically running counter to that classic’s final symbolic shot of Redford and Hoffman toiling on their typewriters in the background while the very news they uncover plays out in the foreground on a television set, changing the course of history itself…the shot summarizes the promise of change through diligent journalistic work. ZODIAC perversely denies that promise. Therefore, categorizing this as just another police procedural would be embarrassingly inaccurate. A viewer who dislikes the film must at the bare minimum classify it as “just another journalistic procedural just mixed with just another police procedural” to begin discussing that it has no deeper merits or insights into the pursuit of truth.
@Robert — fascinating detail about the different actors playing the killer.
@ Ben Simington
Yes, the criticism here seems to be ‘narrative based’ i.e. Fincher didn’t give us the ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN denouement. The logic of saying that Zodiac is a great script, but that Fincher didn’t do anything with it, is embarrassingly inaccurate – how does one know it is a great script, except through Fincher’s film?
@ ODI fascinating detail about the different actors playing the killer…
Yes, it certainly adds to the suggestion Fincher doesn’t want us to know – knowing is missing the point of the film.
I liked what you said about letting go – that is certainly a major part of the film.
Robert – Does he?
It’s not the final scene, but Graysmith goes to a hardware store in Napa where Leigh Allen works. Graysmith goes to the counter, Allen turns and asks if he can help Graysmith, and all Graysmith does is look at him. The moment becomes briefly tense as Allen seems annoyed by his customer (perhaps he knows what Graysmith is thinking), but Greysmith leaves without saying anything.
Jazz – I’m not sure that the Zodiac is supposed to represent anything other than the Zodiac, but I do think it’s safe to say that the Zodiac, at least in terms of identity, is a mystery. If you had to classify him in these terms, you’d say that the Zodiac represents the elusiveness of truth.
The last scene is a tease…sort of. The whole case is a tease, really. If you watch the documentaries that come on the director’s cut of the film, you’ll see that there’s a wide variety of (conflicting) opinion about the case and about Arthur Leigh Allen from the people who were actually involved. Fincher brings Majoe in to identify Allen, but then undercuts it with the title cards that close out the movie. It’s the films way of saying, “We know, but we don’t know.”
You’re right about Graysmith. He’s got the enthusiasm and drive of a boy scout. He wants to know and he’s not able to hide his prejudice regarding who he thinks the killer might be. This can come off as being totally irrational, but I think it’s merely a result of his willingness to commit to an idea until it runs out on him.
Re: Fincher’s direction. While it’s true that a good director can elevate a mediocre screenplay, I think we can all admit that a good screenplay to begin with never hurts. The nature of Zodiac is to throw a boatload of information at the audience through the protagonists. On a first viewing, I found this information somewhat difficult to follow, but the essence of the film still came through. Seeing it again, the information and how it connected became more apparent to me. I’d say that this is where Fincher really brings something special to the film. He’s able to distill and feed that information continuously throughout the film without ever making it feel like a dull history lesson. Otherwise, though, I think Fincher plays it right by being the unnoticed director; he wants you to focus on the screen, not on his style.
Anyone who goes to my profile will see that I think very highly of Zodiac, but I do want to recognize that there is one scene I think is weak. When Graysmith goes to the projectionists house to follow the clues about The Most Dangerous Game, Fincher plays the scene like a lame horror film. It doesn’t work with the rest of the film, imo.