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Zodiac

July 31, 2007

Zodiac may just be the bravest bit of movie making this year. Not in a quadraplegic-paedophiles-gaining-respect-through-salsa feel good kind of way, although I’m sure that movie is being made right now, but simply because it is so much less than the sum of its parts. It is, after all, a David Fincher film. This is the man who gave us Se7en and Fight Club and the execrable Panic Room, for goodness’ sake; big, muscular movies that stick a skip in the cinema foyer and demand you simply chuck your cash in until it heaps up like Tony Montana’s coke stash. And heck, here’s some big hitters – Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, Chloë Sevigny, etc. – and here’s a big theme – a serial killer in that most photogenic of cities, San Francisco. Give it to Jerry Bruckheimer, give it to Michael Bay, give it to Tony Scott! This could have cars flipping over the freeway, explosions rocking the Golden Gate and water dripping in unfeasibly large torture-device-filled basements by the bucketload. It’s a solid gold high concept flick, no?

No.

You see, Zodiac is the true story of a serial killer (yes, admittedly), a man who sent ciphers and letters to the local papers and coppers, and who is – as I type – either dead, or still at large, preparing to kick start his career. We just don’t know. Although a great big finger is pointed at one particular suspect, it never definitively says this is the case. Careers fall apart, characters grow old (this movie doesn’t happen over the course of a murder-each-day week, but spans more than 20 years of bungles, jurisdictional wrangling, bureaucracy, missing paperwork, glaring errors and plain stupidity) and people just give up. This is a study, in essence, of frustration. And that, is very un-blockbuster-y.

The Zodiac (‘Zee’) comes across as no Hannibal Lecter, no criminal mastermind, but a cold-hearted and ultimately very lucky guy. Plus, he can’t spell. He spells Christmas with two Ss! His ciphers are simple substitution codes! And in all possibility he used to be a kiddy fiddler. So, not a noble, cultured, hughly respected, University-lecturing gourmet, then?

Zodiac is a massive three-hour marathon that refreshingly comes up with no pyrotechnics, no car chases or balletic helicopter crashes. You get a lot of talk, an enormous amount of looking through files and much, much despair. There is one very creepy moment when Gyllenhaal thinks he’s on to something, but it’s all in your head, the legacy of all you’ve seen to this point, dovetailing together – incorrectly as it turns out – to provide a genuine psychological frisson, but as actual thrills go, that’s all. Do not expect action during the death scenes, either; the murders happen in a cold and grimly realistic painful way. A bullet rips through a cab driver’s jaw; a couple are tied up and stabbed in an awful, sickeningly silent frenzy; a woman is shot, breathes in panic-filled agony for a few agonising seconds until the killer returns to shoot her again. In the back. I can’t remember anything quite so gruesomely unsentimental.

This is the blockbuster antidote. Some young whippersnappers left with an hour to go, muttering darkly into their mobile phones as they stomped down the stairs. Perhaps the Die Hard 4.0 trailer lulled them into thinking this was a film about a Las Vegas astrologer who can see into the future and is pursued by FBI agents seeking to use his abilities to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack. Who gives a fuck. It’s a film about administrative bottle-necks, about never getting closure, about the messy muddles of real life, and about buggered-up saddos who finish their days working in suburban hardware stores instead of running away to Buenos Aires with beautiful FBI agents to listen to opera at the Colón Theater.

I hate Thomas Harris, and I love Zodiac.

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