Zodiac: The Truth, Known Only to You

There's some real sense to this, even if you can't make sense of it.

The life that we lead involves many unknowns. When will we die? How do we fix the recession? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie-Pop? Some of those unknowns, as evidenced above, are more important than others. Therefore, it is easier to not know some things than it is to not know others. And, because there are things in this world that we absolutely cannot know, we have to find ways of dealing with the mystery. Or we might say that we find ways to know that we know.

Epistemology (noun): a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.

The climax of David Fincher’s Zodiac is a moment rooted in epistemology. Robert Graysmith walks into a small hardware store, after years of sifting through seemingly endless bits of information about the Zodiac murders, to face the man who he believes committed those famous crimes. Tools are not on Graysmith’s mind as he glides past the hammers and measuring tapes to the front counter. He is looking for a lone employee, one Arthur Lee Allen. All of his research, some seven or more years worth, has led to this man, and Graysmith must look him in the face. The evidence that he has uncovered is largely circumstantial, and definitely not enough to get an arrest warrant, but Graysmith wants to face the reality that he has constructed in his own mind; a reality in which Arthur Lee Allen is the devil incarnate and Graysmith has just unmasked him. Sensing a customer’s presence, Allen turns around to see Graysmith staring at him like a stalking ex-lover; mouth agape, eyes glazed over. A confused stare would be one thing, but Graysmith holds it for too long, telling Allen that he knows exactly who he is – The Zodiac. For Graysmith, this is a moment of clarity and closure; for Allen it is an accusation that will dog him for the rest of his life.

Front and back of a Halloween card sent to Paul Avery from Zodiac.

By the time we’ve waded with Graysmith through all the impenetrable mounds of information – dates, names, crimes, weapons, jurisdictions, phone calls, cryptograms, false leads, threats, partial fingerprints in blood, and, in police investigation years, almost endless time – we believe with him that Arthur Lee Allen really is the Zodiac. We are inside the world of a movie based on “actual case files”, but it is still a movie. Zodiac even stacks the informational deck considerably, never bothering to even mention other suspects like Richard Gaikoswki, Jack Tarrance, and Gareth Penn. We should know better, we really should.

“Just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it’s not true.” These are Graysmith’s words to Sgt. Toschi just one scene earlier.

Yes. Just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it’s not true. That little maxim is the heart of a two and a half hour police procedural that bombed at the box office in its 2007 run. The average audience member was looking for the David Fincher who directed Se7en, a director willing to indulge his audience in their deepest serial killer fantasies. What they got was a movie with a fairly violent first hour that gave way to a long string of boy scout-ish fact-finding episodes with Jake Gyllenhaal playing our Robert Graysmith avatar. And in the end, the killer never caught, identified clearly, or confronted in Dirty Harry fashion. If you go into Zodiac without knowing any of the history behind it, you’d scratch your head at the end, wondering why anyone would choose to make a serial killer movie out of an unsolved series of crimes. You’d wonder why they didn’t give the case some of the more classical Hollywood treatment. Why not make Arthur Lee Allen an arch-villain? Why not make San Francisco Chronical journalist Paul Avery into some noble crusading newspaperman who’s willing to do all the right things to help the police break the case? Why didn’t they dig deeper into the family problems caused by Graysmith’s obsessive hunt for Zodiac? Screenwriter James Vanderbilt could’ve made the Zodiac into a psychosexual killer who left traces of his semen at every crime scene. Or maybe he could’ve made Zodiac into a split personality type.

A hollow bomb threat from Zodiac

And therein lies the beauty of Fincher’s movie: it didn’t go for the cheap thrills. Instead it used a real life case as a backdrop for a meditation on the nature of knowing. If we think about it this way, the Zodiac killings make perfect sense as movie material.

Take a moment to recall some of the broader details of the case. Zodiac kills at least three times. He always leaves clues, but none are the kind that would be helpful to an officer of the law or any jury. He writes letters to a widely circulated newspaper, announcing himself and his deeds to a major metropolitan area, making himself into a phantom celebrity. With celebrity comes attention that manifests itself in nearly every Bay Area citizen thinking that he or she knows who Zodiac is. The police – they guys who actually have the authority and tools to find the perpetrator – are flooded with more tips and leads than they could ever want. The truth has a way of hiding behind so many illusions and dead ends. All the while time is passing; time, the perpetual force that can make or break a case. People forget things as time passes, or they remember things that never happened. Eventually, if enough time passes and the crimes don’t continue, people start to forget; they move on with their lives. When Zodiac lies dormant, no one is concerned about him. Except the cartoonist at the Chronicle who has no business hunting down serial killers.

Isn’t that scintillating? To think that Zodiac might still be out there. Or maybe the late Arthur Lee Allen really was Zodiac, and to think that he was never punished accordingly. The Zodiac killings are a never-ending mystery that cannot be solved. It is a puzzle with so many fragmentary pieces that it may never be put together. Watching it in Hollywood movie form should hold us to the edge of our seats. And yet, just as it did in real life, the mystery seems to dissipate before us on the screen, leaving us only to know that we know, but unable to prove our knowledge to anyone else.

A message from Zodiac, left on the side of his victim's car door.

A film that relies too heavily on metaphor is usually a bore. In a medium where you can show the physical world, why settle for a substitution code? And yet the epistemological metaphor is exactly what makes Zodiac a masterpiece. David Fincher manages to take one of the most abstract concepts in the history of thought and literalized it with a meticulously detailed historical framework. The trick is subtle. On a first viewing one is left with the feeling that there is nothing in Zodiac to latch on to. The plot is constantly shifting and the characters are not exactly iconic. Zodiac is rarely funny or entertaining in any conventional sense, but it has a nasty way of digging its tender claws into your mind, forcing you to play back scenes as you go about your daily routine. It forces you to consider a mystery that is no longer relevant. The substitution code, much like the one that Zodiac provides to the Chronicle, begins to take shape in your own thinking. If we allow ourselves some mental space to extrapolate, we will see that we too must use mountains of circumstantial evidence to construct our realities. Like Graysmith, we have to take use all the pieces of our experience, all the information handed to us, and all of our powers of logic and imagination to know that we know.

Though it will never be a popular favorite in the years to come, Zodiac will stand true in the future because the mystery that it asks us to look at – no matter how historically specific it may be – is eternal.

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5 thoughts on “Zodiac: The Truth, Known Only to You

  1. Nathan, for someone who did not like Seven (or Se7en or whatever) would you recommend this one? I’ve avoided David Fincher since then (except for a random free screening of Panic Room) because I didn’t get the big deal. Your writeup has me much more intrigued for this than I would have thought.

    Though I am a huge Dirty Harry fan, especially of Andy Robinson as “Scorpio”.

  2. Outside of Zodiac (which is my favorite movie of the 00s) and The Social Network (which I like, but to a far lesser extent), I am not a Fincher fan at all. In fact, I’ve found every other Fincher movie to be a technically proficient bore (except for Fight Club, which is a technically proficient mess). Zodiac is the Fincher movie for people who do not like Fincher. The movie was released in February 2007 (Hollywood’s annual dumping off period), because Paramount had no idea what to do with a serial killer movie w/out a payoff. One of my biggest moviegoing regrets is that I didn’t see it theatrically.

    To be fair, Zodiac, does divide cinephiles sharply. Many of my friends have given a shoulder-shrug judgment of indifference to it; others are as enthusiastic as me. Well…probably not as enthusiastic as me, but.

    I would recommend patience for a first time viewer, though. The movie presents a lot of information and you will spend some effort trying to follow it. I was not blown away on a first viewing at all. It kept coming back, though.

    Also, sorry for any major spoilers here. I guess we all know that the Zodiac murders haven’t been solved yet, but I still should’ve tipped readers off.

  3. Sorry for the delay, fellas. Bid’ness. Anyway.

    Zodiac is one of my favorite movies of the preceding decade, and likely beyond. There were more than a few articles written about it at the time of its release that framed it as a film about obsessive-compulsive disorder. Given Fincher’s notorious, it’s-Kubrickian directorial method of take after take after take after take after take, I agree with this assessment. Graysmith simply cannot let go of an obsession that, by film’s conclusion, has destroyed his life. There’s a line somewhere towards the finale–which Nathan describes impeccably–that alludes to Zodiac’s ultimate insignificance in the pantheon of murders, as people are murdered, by the dozens, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. Yet the aggression, the self-promotion, the seeming randomness of the Zodiac murders can’t help but control Graysmith’s mind. He has to know, though he never will. He convinces himself of what is very possibly a fiction. But, that is the mind of an obsessive. Whatever works to satisfy the senseless urge to know, know something, as uncertainty is the gravest enemy.

    As for Fincher’s work, I actually love each of his movies, with the exception, hilariously, of Fight Club (Alien 3 doesn’t count at all), a movie I consider absolute and total bullshit. I love Seven (Se7e7v7en7), despite its crap and bleak perspective on humanity; I think The Game is absolutely hysterically fun; I thought Panic Room was totally underrated as a crack-whip thriller; The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button damn near made me weep; and The Social Network, to me, was as good as advertised. I’d never use his methods–you hire actors for a reason, dude, let them act–but, behind the camera and in the editing room, he’s an auteur I consider one of the most assured and talented working in American film today.

    Then again, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Maybe I’m just biased.

  4. On the special director’s cut edition of the movie, there is an interview with the guy who actually survived the lake murder. He said that the sound they used to simulate the stabbing was so accurate that he could barely sit through the scene.

    The OCD aspect of the film often gets overlooked by me in lieu of my personal interest in the epistemology angle, but the OCD stuff is definitely there. The movie starts with a lot of different characters who might be interested in or directly involved with the case, but they all begin to pull away for various personal and professional reasons. Mostly, though, they lose interest because too much time has passed. The movie sticks with Graysmith not because he is more interesting than the rest (he’s not), but because he’s the only one who cares anymore. It’s his obsessiveness that drives him. I haven’t read Graysmith’s book or heard much in the way of interviews with him, but I’d be curious to know exactly what drove him to go as far as he did with the case. He was compelled by something in himself or in the Zodiac murders, because there sure wasn’t anyone hanging over his shoulders demanding that he crack the case on a deadline.

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