Zodiac (2007)


By Scott Ross

It’s tempting to wonder what the fate of Zodiac might have been had it been made, say, 25 or even 15 years earlier. (Although if it had been, it wouldn’t be the same picture.) A few of the best movies of any given year perform dismally at the box-office, of course; who, in their time, saw Make Way for Tomorrow or Dodsworth? There was a period, however, and not so long past, when it was exceedingly rare that a film this good — even great — was seen by so few people. Today, chances are it won’t get made at all, or will be produced only on a marginal budget, or with compromises that cripple its very originality and essential integrity, and still few serious moviegoers will partake of it.

Among its many remarkable achievements, Zodiac absolutely recreates the look and feel of its places and times. This was achieved to a certain degree with strikingly seamless CGI — one of the very few instances in recent memory of computer imagery serving the movie rather than, as is the overwhelmingly usual case, the other way around. But, as with any complex work of art, the reasons Zodiac succeeds so stunningly well as a picture are manifold, set off by four distinct, intelligent decisions.

There is, first, the determination of its filmmakers — the screenwriter James Vanderbilt, the producer Brad Fischer and the director David Fincher — to treat the material without sensationalism, excessive gore or pat conclusions. Since no definitive guilt has ever been established for the killer, or killers, responsible for what became known in the late 1960s and early 1970s as “the Zodiac murders” in and around San Francisco, the filmmakers (as with Robert Graysmith, the author of two related books on which the picture was based) can only speculate, and that, in the case of the movie, without absolute conviction.* Second, the creative team’s centering their story not on Zodiac but the effect of his (their?) killings on several people associated with the case either directly (the detectives Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong and, to a lesser degree, the crime reporter Paul Avery) or indirectly (Graysmith himself, and his young family.) Third, their laudable determination to eschew dwelling on the murders themselves in favor of sharp, shocking indications that disturb as much as, if not more than, more explicit illustration would have. And, finally, their equally salubrious decision to concentrate on the unsettling ripples with which these unsolved, violent crimes penetrate, not merely the surface but the essential core of those who become, as Graysmith and Toschi do, obsessed with them.


Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) really knows how to show a date (Chloë Sevigny) a good time.

Indeed Graysmith, a Chronicle cartoonist at the time of the murders and not even a reporter, becomes so enraptured by “Zodiac” that obsession is almost too polite a word. Although Toschi too is deeply committed to solving the cases, he has other work to do, and does it. Avery’s situation is altogether more pitiable; after being directly threatened, the flamboyant, arrogant reporter becomes (in the picture, anyway) by turns, easily startled, furtive, and increasingly alcoholic. In some terrible way, the filmmakers suggest, Paul Avery was Zodiac’s last, unclaimed, victim.

Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) before the eventual deterioration.

Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) before the eventual deterioration.

It’s perhaps no accident that Zodiac is among the best-cast movies of its time, just as All the President’s Men was in its: Fincher reveres, as I do, that 1976 investigation by William Goldman and Alan J. Pakula into Watergate and its eventual decoding by Woodward and Bernstein. And too, the starkly lit look of the Chronicle in Zodiac echoes the visualization of the Post in the Pakula picture, and Graysmith stands in well for “Woodstein,” notably during his nocturnal adventures, which share something of Robert Redford’s occasionally frightening experiences. Jake Gyllanhaal does well by Graysmith despite being, in my experience of his work, utterly incapable of convincingly playing a heterosexual. He’s outshone considerably by Mark Ruffalo’s alternately charming, affable and no-nonsense Dave Toschi, and by Robert Downey, Jr.’s superbly illuminated Paul Avery. Equally impressive, in less spectacular roles, are Anthony Edwards as Toschi’s partner Bill Armstrong; Chloë Sevigny as Graysmith’s eventual second wife; John Carroll Lynch as the prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen; Brian Cox in a marvelous turn as that appalling fame-whore Melvin Belli; and the always interesting, and deeply missed, Phillip Baker Hall, splendid as the SFPD’s handwriting expert. Charles Fleischer, the once and future Roger Rabbit, contributes, in what just may be the most hair-raising sequence in the movie, a small miracle of a cameo as an oxymoronically bland yet ineluctably sinister cinema manager.

Zodiac movie image Mark Ruffalo

The distinctive manner in which Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) wore his service revolver was immortalized by Steve McQueen in Bullitt. He was also the reluctant inspiration for a very different sort of San Francisco cop, Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan, whose initial picture was a thinly-disguised Zodiac knock-off. (Anthony Edwards at left.)

Brian Cox as Marvin Belli.

Brian Cox as Melvin Belli.

Graymith (Gyllanhaal) with Philip Baker Hall as Sherwood Morrill.

Graymith (Gyllanhaal) with Philip Baker Hall as Sherwood Morrill.


Charles Fleischer as Bob Vaughn, in the movie’s most unnerving scene.

There are, to be sure, a few aspects of Zodiac that either puzzle unnecessarily, or which are inconsistent. (An inconsistency may be minor and still confuse.) Why, for example, when Graysmith says he has two children, do we only see one, until he remarries? Further, we don’t know why he’s single, or how he has custody of his young son. Is he divorced? Widowed? And where is that other child? The puzzles are more problematic. Why is so little made, for example, of the physical differences between the killer (or killers) at Vallejo and Lake Barryessa and the suspect in the murder of San Francisco cabbie Paul Stine? The former are said to have been committed by a very large man, possibly bald, or at least with lank hair, the latter by a smaller man with a crew cut. (And whose clothing, moreover, was not noticed to have been spattered with blood.) This is no small matter, for much of the endless speculation about the case hinges on such disparities. Indeed, Graysmith and others speculate that The Zodiac may have worn wigs to disguise his appearance, something James Vanderbilt’s screenplay does not address — or, if it did, the reference was cut. You can easily disguise your hairstyle, but altering your physique, and your height, are knottier (if not necessarily insoluble) problems. Additionally, for a movie as scrupulous and intelligent as this one, there is rather too much reliance on accepted theories about Zodiac. Some strong questioning of circular thinking may have been in order here.


The banality of evil? John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen at the climax of Zodiac.

According to Fincher, one of the edits the studio insisted upon before release of the 157-minute theatrical cut (his own cut runs 162) was the elimination of one of its more compelling sequences, available in the so-called “Director’s Cut” on DVD and Blu-ray, in which Toschi and Armstrong rattle off to an unseen magistrate their reasons for seeking a search-warrant via speaker-phone, and await the answer. Since Fincher was emulating in Zodiac, both for his cops and for Graysmith, the slogging labor Woodward and Bernstein go through in All the President’s Men — the scene echoes the lengthy one in ATPM in which Pakula holds on Redford at his desk as he juggles telephone calls as well as the later, crucial scene in which Bernstein and his informant misunderstand each other — this mandated omission is doubly irksome. And it points, once again, to the real problem facing the serious American filmmaker today: How does one cope with an increasingly impatient and sub-literate audience which, in addition to being unable or unwilling (if not indeed both) to follow a reasonably complex narrative, is accustomed to, and demands, a thrill-a-minute approach to everything it sees, with grand mal seizure-inducing cutting to match?

John Simon concluded his original, rave review of the Jason Miller drama That Championship Season by noting that if this play did not succeed, Broadway itself deserved to die. Zodiac, as far as I am concerned, says the same thing about American movies. That a film this good could not find a substantial audience, and did not succeed in pecuniary terms, indicates that the current Hollywood too deserves death, and the sooner the better.

*Graysmith has many critics, and his certainty that Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac is shared by none of them.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Post-Script: April 2014
I neglected in the above to make mention of two additional aspects of Zodiac that contribute so mightily to its effectiveness: Its look, and its score, both effectively bifurcated. The look is the work of the late Harris Savides, the picture’s cinematographer, who gave it two, equally distinctive aspects, of light and of dark: The muted glow of its Northern California exteriors by day and the deeply unsettling blankness of its many night sequences. The score is comprised largely through pop songs of the period that serve as guideposts to their times, and partly by David Shire’s minimalist chamber accompaniment. (That he also memorably scored All the President’s Men is surely not coincidental.) Shire’s score owes something to Herrmann’s music for Psycho but only in passing; the rest is the nearly unerring genius of a composer who has been utilized far too seldom by American filmmakers but whose scores are, without exception, splendid. Fincher’s alternating use of period Top 40 items like “Easy to be Hard,” “Soul Sacrifice,” “Jean” and “Baker Street” place the scenes squarely within their chronology and, occasionally, add more than a frisson of atmosphere: After seeing Zodiac I can virtually guarantee you will never hear Donovan’s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” in quite the same way.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)


By Scott Ross

With this single movie, the entire landscape of animation was altered, for a time. Now, of course, the only arena that still embraces hand-drawn animation is television, for a few series but mostly for commercial advertising. Even — nay, especially — there, Roger Rabbit had almost immediate influence: Within months of the movie’s release, one noticed that the familiar sugared cereal icons looked softer, less defined by strong, black outline, particularly in the admixture of live actors and cartooned spokes-creatures. That, as much as anything — sadly but predictably — is the film’s true legacy, not its many and manifold narrative delights. As Mel Brooks once observed, advertising is a lot stronger than life.

The movie was loosely based on — “suggested by” might be closer to the mark — Gary K. Wolf’s satirical mystery novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?* in which the milieus were 1970s Los Angeles and the comic strip, not the animated cartoon industry of the late 1940s. Roger and his cohorts spoke in word balloons, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t end at all well for the titular hare. From this ingenious premise, the screenwriters, Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman, concocted an oxymoronic, Technicolor neo-noir set in the post-war era, adding the plangent, real-life demise of the once-beloved L.A. Red Car Line as a sort of Chinatown sub-plot.

Key animation was entrusted to Richard Williams, whose magnificently designed and animated 1970 Oscar® winner A Christmas Carol remains the single finest movie edition of that creaky perennial. Williams had hated the nailed-down-camera approach Disney traditionally took on its live action/cartoon olios like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and saw Roger Rabbit as an opportunity to free the cel from stasis. As a result, the camerawork on the picture (it was lensed by Dean Cundey) is as free in live action as it would have been had the movie’s conceit — that cartoon figures work in real-time, on sets, not as the painstaking result of hard-working animators — been reality; Williams’ liberation of the camera gives the movie much of its inspired anarchy.

Setting the story in the ’40s also allowed the filmmakers to make use of the animated stars of the era, especially, although not exclusively, Disney’s. Thus, Mickey Mouse is cheek-by-jowl with his Termite Terrace rival Bugs Bunny (and rather suffers by comparison); MGM’s Droopy makes a somewhat sinister cameo appearance in an elevator; Betty Boop appears, in black and white, commenting on how the changes in movie fashion affect even those stars animated from without rather than within; Yosemite Sam shows up, pants aflame; and those two famously irascible ducks, Daffy and Donald, perform a murderous piano duet.

While Steven Spielberg set up the movie at Touchstone/Disney, the animated humor owes much more to the antic Warner Bros. style of the period, and to Tex Avery at MGM, than to Uncle Walt’s more placid period output. (Watch the opening cartoon-within-a-film with your pause button handy some time, to see just how brilliantly Williams aped Avery’s exaggerated takes.)

The movie’s director, Robert Zemeckis, checked his previous tendency to mean-spiritedness here, and he kept the humans — aside from the marvelous Christopher Lloyd, whose Elmira Gultch-like Judge Doom turns out (avert eyes here if you haven’t seen the movie) to be a cartoon anyway — fully grounded. Bob Hoskins’ stoical/belligerent presence holds all possible inclination to sentiment at bay, and the very real sadness this otherwise cheery film evokes comes from a keen sense of shared cultural loss.

Charles Fleischer, who bears a felicitous (if unrelated) last name for this project, provides the vocal characterization for Roger in a wholly original style. You may find him obnoxious, in the manner of Avery’s Screwy Squirrel, and Chuck Jones for one loathed Roger. But Jones et al had the advantage of refining their characters over time, in multiple shorts, a luxury no feature film can match. A perfect complement to Fleischer’s mania is Kathleen Turner’s languidly sensual Jessica Rabbit, Roger’s hilariously phlegmatic humanoid wife. (Her caressive singing, however, comes courtesy of the then-Mrs. Spielberg, Amy Irving.)

Some stellar voice-over talent is also on hand: Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo (as Donald Duck), June Foray, Russi Taylor, Pat Buttram, Nancy Cartwright, and, as Droopy, Richard Williams himself.

The richness of the animated characters’ look, enhanced via computer, recalled classic Disney techniques even as it went beyond them; their softness and lack of broad outline were revelatory, and it’s what those teevee ad firms picked up on so quickly. And everyone else, it seems, liked the sound of the nomenclature the filmmakers developed for the ghettoized animated characters, referred to as “Toons”; the slang has since become boringly ubiquitous.

Williams, who’d won his job on the basis of his work on a then-unfinished feature on which he’d been working for 20 years, hoped to pour the income from Roger into its completion. He later saw the same Disney executives who’d feted him for his miracle-work here essentially steal his idea, for their own Aladdin. By the time that one had become a box-office behemoth, what little interest there may have been in Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler was summarily murdered. When it finally opened, as Arabian Knights, it didn’t make a ripple. And shortly thereafter, Williams himself died.

Such are your rewards for enriching The Mouse.


*Note the question mark, which the movie’s title eschews.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross