02 March 2007

This is the Contrarian speaking...

"The ending for me," says Fincher, "was always, At what point can you, personally, call it a day, Robert?"

-- quoted in Nathan Lee's Village Voice rave

My own, more tempered (but still positive) review of Zodiac, written for the Las Vegas Weekly, is available here, if you haven't already seen it. Now, as a Zodiac "buff" (for lack of a better word) since way the hell back in 1981, five years before the publication of Graysmith's first book, when I actually traveled by train from San Jose to San Francisco (at age 13) to talk the SFPD into letting me examine their case file for a phony school project, I'm not the most objective audience member imaginable for this particular motion picture. Nonetheless, I want to expand a bit on the last paragraph of my review, because it puzzles me that nobody else seems to be bothered by the film's deeply misguided final scene, which to my mind all but negates everything that precedes it. Remove this one brief scene and I might concur with the widespread opinion of Zodiac as a modern masterpiece.

[To the extent that documented real-world events can be spoiled, spoilers may follow. p.s. They never caught the guy.]

As you know if you've read even a tiny handful of reviews, Zodiac is a movie about obsession, following Graysmith (who would channel his amateur investigation into two best-selling books), San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery and SFPD detective Dave Toschi down the rabbit hole burrowed by one of the last century's most twisted criminal minds. "[The film] throbs with...the despair of good men made crazy by their prey," Josh Rothkopf writes, and he's not alone in interpreting Zodiac as a pointed allegory, whether of the chaotic overload of the Information Age or Bush II's destructive pursuit of that canny phantom Osama bin Laden. I wound up characterizing it as a portrait of OCD, embodied not so much by the characters as by the movie itself, with its breathless onslaught of facts and theories and its initially amusing, ultimately disturbing insistence on providing a date/time stamp for literally every. single. scene.

Thing is, though, the beat on which a movie ends often carries more weight for me than any other single element. Contrary to popular belief, I don't demand some sort of "twist" at the end that recodes the entire picture (exhilarating though those can be when they work). But I do tend to assume—certainly I hope—that some serious thought will have gone into the final image and/or line, especially in a work as dense and ambitious as Zodiac. So if your movie is fundamentally about destructive obsession, perhaps you want to fade out (or cut to black) on the bitter, bloated fruit of that obsession, as Christopher Nolan does in The Prestige—a film that improved for me on repeat viewings in large part because I came to recognize how perfectly judged its final moment is. Or there are any number of other lyrical/poetic/chilling/telling denouements one could devise. Blatant or oblique, according to taste. But something resonant, if you please.

Instead, Zodiac-the-movie ends precisely the way that Graysmith's Zodiac Unmasked ends—and Zodiac Unmasked, for all its byzantine investigative curlicues, is not fundamentally a tale of good men ruined by their inability to accept the unknown. Graysmith's primary objective in both of his books is to make a convincing case against his preferred Zodiac suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (called Robert "Bob" Hall Starr in the first book, which was published before Allen's death in 1992). Thus Unmasked dramatically concludes with what Graysmith clearly feels is the most damning evidence of Allen's guilt: The fact that surviving Zodiac victim Michael Mageau identified Allen from a photo lineup (24 years, please note, after he was shot). In the book, this revelation serves as a sort of Q.E.D., justifying the endless speculation that precedes it. And in that context, it works just fine (though I happen to think Allen probably wasn't the guy)*

But Zodiac-the-movie has no ostensible interest in revealing whodunnit. Quite the contrary—its thematic import all but hinges upon the fact that the killer was never caught. So why on earth conclude 2.5+ hours of OCD meltdown with a scene involving none of the movie's principal characters—not Graysmith, not Avery, not Toschi, not even Graysmith's tediously unsupportive wife (ChloĆ« Sevigny, boring onscreen for the first time ever)? Maybe my foreknowledge of Graysmith's books (and my skepticism re: Allen's guilt) are distorting my vision, but I can't see how this piece fits into the giant unsolved puzzle Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt have laid out for us. It comes across as a clumsy, misguided stab at resolution in a movie that derives all of its inspiration from the lack thereof.

If you consider Zodiac a masterpiece, I'm curious: What did you make of this ending? Did it even register, or were you too overwhelmed by that point to care?

* IN CASE YOU'RE INTERESTED: I've never bought Allen as the Zodiac. Admittedly, a fair amount of circumstantial evidence points in his direction, but most of that can be chalked up to his weird sense of humor; even in the film, where he's played by John Carroll Lynch, it's easy to imagine that he's getting off on fucking with the police's collective head. More to the point, all of the hard physical evidence exonerates him. No article tying him to any of the victims or crime scenes has ever been found (even after his death); he doesn't remotely resemble the famous composite; his handwriting doesn't match; his fingerprints don't match; his palm print doesn't match; and when they finally succeeded in scraping some Zodiac DNA from verified letters (he licked the envelopes), that didn't match Allen either. For a cogent summary, you can't do better than Jake Wark.


Scott T. said...

It seems like the film mostly buys the case against Allen-- even the closing title about the failed DNA test makes it a point to note that the envelope from which it was extracted was over 30 years old-- but the final scene doesn't exactly drive that point home with any certainty. The ID rates an 8 on a 1 to 10 scale, and the eyewitness makes it clear that he's remembering a face from decades earlier. I guess the film is putting its best foot forward as far as pinning Allen to the crimes, but the ending is still pretty ambiguous and you certainly don't leave the theater thinking "case closed."

I'm not sure if my knowing zip about the Zodiac case going into the movie helped me appreciate it more or not. Do you imagine your reaction would have been different had you not been so schooled on the case? I'm a little surprised you weren't over the moon for this movie. It seems made for you.

Nathan Lee said...

I saw the movie twice before review, and was twice struck by the PERFECTION of the ending. And here's why: The end to me is not the last shot, but the title cards that follow which undermine the whole Allen-as-Zodiac thesis. The movie builds a case against him and seemingly, in that last scene, adds the final bit of evidence. Then comes a card saying DNA evidence proved inconclusive and he croaked before he could be charged. That's the final twist, the final twart, the final dead end, the final futility. Its a tremendously perverse ending, no? That said, I've never read the Zodiac books and have no special interest in the material, so that reading (and my reading of the film as a whole) is strictly focused on what's onscreen.

md'a said...

Scott: It's not so much whether the evidence is or isn't conclusive. It's the fact that the film ends on an evidentiary note, and one that doesn't even involve any of the lives we've seen warped and/or ruined over the course of the previous 20+ years. That choice makes the film seem as if, like the books, it's more concerned with the case itself than with the people involved.

Nathan: Hmm, okay. Maybe I'm just having trouble finding the dramatic epiphany I wanted in a series of flatly expository end titles.

Both: No question whatsoever that my encyclopedic knowledge of the case was hindrance rather than help. I plan to see the movie again, and I'm hoping this time I'll be able to get past the head-nodding response that dominated my first viewing: Yep, they got that right, and that right, and that right...

Michael Casey said...

I was going to boycott all md'a reviews until said md'a provided a reason as to why we have yet to see his white name flash on black background, but I already caved with Zodiac, so nevermind. My energy for revolt is minimal, so I should be back to lurking in a day or so with no side effects.

On an even more defeatist note, is Zodiac worth seeing even if you already know the ending sucks (out) all its masterpiece potential? I'm a Fincher fan (I also like sex, music and ice cream) but I feel like your review pretty much nailed the whole thing shut, without having even seen it. Usually there's at least a niggling of a reason to see something that's interesting on paper, but this time you gutted it clean.

Tom said...

Personally I didn't know much about the case and came out saying I'd be much happier if the DNA matched.

I think the film makes a mistake in virtually endorsing Graysmith's conclusion. not only the ID, but a lot of weight is attached to the "evidence" that Allen supposedly lived in the vicinity of one of the victims – in fact the first victim the movie shows, but not Zodiac's first, which gives it even more weight. (Is this evidence new by the way I haven't read it elsewhere, and it's not mentioned in the Wark piece you link to?).

Of course my 'unhappiness' could be the exact response Fincher was after. Here's another quote from him:

"The things that made me want to make it may be some of the same things that other people find problematic. I liked the idea that there was not a neat ending, But I also find the ending satisfying, because it’s real, it feels true. Some things just don’t get wrapped up neatly. Sometimes, you just have to put things away, call it done, say `I’ve done the best I can do according to what I believe in,’ and get on with it.”

Joshua Rothkopf said...

Like Nathan, I also think the ending is perfect. That said, Mike, I think you're actually complaining about what should be called the denouement. The ending does involve one of the main characters: It's Robert going into the hardware store, confronting Arthur in a painfully uncomfortable showdown ("I just need to look in his face, and know that it's him") and Arthur turning away, almost embarrassed. From an acting standpoint, Jake ain't quite puling off the moment as strongly as I would have directed him. But that's the confrontation, which daringly has no resolution. (Does he just walk out?)

The scene thats follows, with Maggeau and the photo, hammers home the idea of ruination. Look at what a fucked up, nervous shambles this guy is. He used to be young and dating blondes.

Nathan, I like your idea about the cards being the final twist. Last night, when I saw the film with a public audience (third time, twice before review), that "heart attack" card got a big laugh.

md'a said...

The scene thats follows, with Maggeau and the photo, hammers home the idea of ruination. Look at what a fucked up, nervous shambles this guy is. He used to be young and dating blondes.

Dude, I used to be young too. 24 years passing will make you older whether you're haunted by a killer or not.

In any case, I just don't buy that this scene exists primarily to show us how fucked up Mageau now is. This is like those determinedly weird interpretations of the final shot of Spielberg's AI. There's no doubt at all about why this scene ends Graysmith's book—it ain't no portrait of a ruined man. You're arguing that Fincher and Vanderbilt, who could have chosen to end the movie in a thousand different ways, decided to hope that viewers would look past the self-defeating content (Mageau identifies Allen as the man who shot him) and focus on the physical appearance of a "character" they've seen once before, 24 years earlier, when he was 19. That's pretty damn optimistic in my opinion.

There's just no good reason for this scene to conclude the film except to leave the viewer with the impression that Allen was the Zodiac: "It was that creepy dude all along!" I suspect Fincher included the DNA info in the end titles only because he knew he'd get all kinds of shit if he ignored it.

Michael Casey: I don't know how you got the impression from my review that the film isn't worth seeing. Not meeting my ludicrously high expectations doesn't mean it isn't quite good.

Joshua Rothkopf said...

Mike wrote: "Dude, I used to be young too. 24 years passing will make you older whether you're haunted by a killer or not."

Sorry, fella, but that strikes me as a willfully ignorant reading. Maggeau's wearing a veteran's jacket, his eyes are hollowed, the makeup department's had a field day on him, and Fincher's primary direction seems to be "You're haunted!"

Fincher is concluding his film on this note (and cutting to black, *and* reintroducing "Hurdy Gurdy Man") to create an undeniable mood of: There IS no catharsis. The hurdy-gurdy man lingers.

Meanwhile, I ask: Why is this last moment more essential (to you) than the one right before it, the hardware store scene? Or even the diner scene between Graysmith and Toschi when they put it all together with the salt and pepper shakers? You seem hung up on a final bit of atmosphere. The film is ten times better than the two books.

Kyle C. said...

Another brief, potentially inane take on “Zodiac’s” ending from someone who thinks it’s a masterpiece. I thought the final moments were entirely congruous with the filmmakers’ liner approach to the material. Emphasizing the “evidentiary” in the conclusion made perfect sense for a true-life story whose characters never reach a satisfying “dramatic epiphany.” I agree with Mr. Lee: those three or four title cards comprise the real ending. For a film as relentlessly obsessed with information as “Zodiac,” the only logical end-point would be the textual presentation of further information, right? For me, the ending’s success hedged on one line (paraphrased, of course): “After Allen’s death, Graysmith claims to have never received any anonymous phone calls.” This intriguing coincidence, along with his eventual “confrontation” in the hardware store and the lack of physical evidence, provided resonant closure for a decidedly ambiguous ending. Then again, like most of the respondents thus far, I, too, had little foreknowledge of the case and any of its particulars, so that certainly affected my response. Question for MD’A: given your familiarity with the case and incredulous stance on Allen’s guilt, wouldn’t you agree that it was reasonable for Fincher & co. to favor a fact-based ending over an embellishment of the three leads’ relation to said-events? Would you have preferred the hardware store exchange as the final image?

md'a said...

You seem hung up on a final bit of atmosphere.

Talk about willful. Whatever resonance you find in Mageau's appearance, what happens in this scene is that he positively identifies Arthur Leigh Allen as the man who shot him. To call this "a final bit of atmosphere" is just ludicrous. Even if I agree that Fincher is doing his damndest to subvert Graysmith's stab at conclusiveness, my question remains: Why include it at all, given that the film's agenda has little to do with the books'?

I'm hung up on this the same way I'd be hung up on the final scene of United 93 if it had been a scene of Giuliani striding around Ground Zero looking like a future Presidential candidate. (Or, y'know, if it had concluded with the words "America's war on terror had begun.")

The film is ten times better than the two books.

I'm not arguing that with you. I actually find Unmasked pretty close to unreadable. That's why it disappoints me that the film sticks to Graysmith's allegedly revelatory ending instead of going its own way.

matt prigge said...

There's also the bizarre part in the final scene where Maggeau points to the headshot next to Allen, and says something like, "His head was round like this." (Not like Allen's?) I think this scene is partly Fincher fucking with the portion of the audience who wants catharsis. (I was reminded of the tack-on ending of THE BREAK-UP, which was non-ambiguous enough to make the people who wanted them to get back together to think they're getting back together, even though there's no evidence to back that up.) But the facts uttered not just in the ending title cards but in the scene itself undermine any closure something fierce. See also: the whole "it was 22 years ago," the "at least an 8," and the fact that, yes, these two characters aren't main characters, but those who have taken the baton. (You only see James Le Gros once, and in passing.) The whole scene seems to be acknowledging that we want closure so much that we'll impose it, even amid specious evidence.

I admit when I first saw it, this ending felt a little too aligned with Graysmith for my tastes, and just not enough of a non-ending. But the second time, once "Hurdy Gurdy Man" came back, I basically had to choke them back.

md'a said...

Question for MD’A: given your familiarity with the case and incredulous stance on Allen’s guilt, wouldn’t you agree that it was reasonable for Fincher & co. to favor a fact-based ending over an embellishment of the three leads’ relation to said-events?

I'm not necessarily asking for embellishment, or for the film to place its central characters in situations that didn't occur in real life. I just want a final scene that doesn't (to my mind) subvert everything that precedes it.

Mageau identifying Allen as the killer is Graysmith's ending, and it's appropriate for that particular work, which is a clear attempt to find an answer. But it's dead wrong for this movie, which might more profitably have ended (to cite just one possibility) with Allen's death (which actually precedes the Mageau scene by a month or so) and the fruitless search of his house—including a mysterious videocassette marked 'Z' which turned out to just be Allen mooning the police and complaining about their hassling of him over the years. I don't know that I'd love that, but at least it would be another dead end, not a positive ID that's at best semi-contradicted by an expository title card.

Zack said...

I actually think Matt is onto something when he points out that Maggeau, even though he positively identifies Allen and gives it an 8-out-of-10 on the positive scale, sort of wanders over and says, Hey, wait, and he had a round head like this guy... Like, "Yeah, I'm sure this is him, but he also kind of looks like that and he had red eyes and a tail, etc."

That, combined with (1) the end titles saying that DNA, fingerprints -- all the EVIDENCE, in other words -- totally clears Allen, but the investigators won't let that rule him out and (2) the Fincher quote that md'a opens his post with, make it clear to me that Fincher has indeed made a movie about obsession. The thing is, when could that movie have ever ended? Short of Graysmith blowing his brains out, going crazy over this thing, he eventually needs to be able to find some closure to this thing, and if the only way he can begin to take his life back from This Thing that's buried him for almost a decade is to say, "Yeah, I don't care what anyone says, THAT'S THE GUY," and for him to have his ending, CASE SOLVED, etc., regardless of all evidence to the contrary, well, then, maybe that's OK.

"What's it gonna take for you to be done with this thing?" Chloe Sevigny's (admittedly boring) character asks him. And I guess I think that's the real question the movie asks: After so many years and so many dead ends, can you really accept that we'll just never know?

Now, you could make the argument that you still don't need the last scene to achieve that, but the ending without it is pretty much just Graysmith saying, "Yep, it's him. No doubt about it." And while what comes after that now doesn't totally discount his theory, it does poke a handful of holes, leaving just enough ambiguity to say, maybe we'd all just feel better with this one wrapped up, regardless of whether we got it right.

All that said (and apologizes for the run-ons here, I'm really just kind of freestyling this one), the ending still doesn't really work for me just as an ending, and the movie really could've used an intermission (to more clearly separate the procedural parts from the obsessive parts), but I dug it.

Joshua Rothkopf said...

Sorry, but being hung up on this final positive identification with Maggeau is literal-minded to an absurd degree: it's like seeing the last shot of CITIZEN KANE and slapping your head, "Now ya tell me! If it was all about the sled, why have a whole movie about Kane's so-called mystery?" (And no, I don't compare those two movies lightly.)

Granted, I think that Fincher could have made a different stylistic decision, one that might have better emphasized the actual conclusion of his film: a long, Kubrickian lap-dissolve from Graysmith at the hardware store, staring hard, to ten years later at the airport, say. Or maybe a longer moment between the two men in the store. Or as Graysmith is leaving, a longer fade to black. Mind you, it's not that Arthur *is* the killer necessarily, but that Graysmith thinks he's face to face with him, and the moment is ... cathartic? Not?

Personally, I think it's *we* as viewers who are putting all this emphasis on Fincher's Arthur, out of a dramatic need for catharsis. But is the filmmaker really incriminating him? Not really. The movie includes plenty of material saying he's not the guy, the police chief saying he's not, the handwriting expert, etc. But because we need him to be, the final scene takes on a huge impact in the minds of some people (i.e. Mike). (And how brilliant is that? Fincher has made us into obsessives, by exploiting our own requirements of shaped drama.)

W. Minge said...

I haven't yet seen Zodiac -- the film only opens in my neck of the woods on April 20th -- so I really shouldn't be commenting, but for those that have seen it: is it not possible that the ending is a deliberate false-positive, and is by no means meant to be read as an endorsement on the part of Fincher & co? Unlike something like, say, Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, which [SPOILER] is clear-cut in its open-endedness, Zodiac seems to be asking a little bit more of its audience by ending with a bunch of contradictory evidence (some subtle and some not) both before and during the credits. Of course, one could also read this as Fincher & co. wanting to have their cake and eat it, but does a film of this sort always have to end in a transparently open-ended fashion in order to be satisfying? (Based on what I've read here, it does actually seem to be pretty transparently open-ended, but anyway...) Perhaps ending with a supposed "conclusion" is just the right way to go about it? I mean, would it have engendered so much debate on this blog otherwise? The obsession continues...

w. minge said...

Okay, maybe my last point doesn't apply to this blog so much, as here the discussion revolves more around the particulars of the film as apposed to the case itself; but, still, I think the ending seems to be an attempt to encourage debate, no matter how futile it may be. If the ending had been transparently open-ended, people probably wouldn't have given the case a second thought upon exiting the theatre. ("Oh crap, they didn't catch the bugger. Oh well...") But by offering up a "conclusion" that’s peppered with contradictions and then capping it off with the closing title cards, Fincher & co. are clearly trying to engender further post-film discussion. Of course, this means that the ending probably won't be as dramatically satisfying as, say, the ending to Bong's film, but it makes sense all the same. Then again, I really shouldn't be commenting on any of this.

Jon said...

Hi, Mike. (No, you don't know me, but if memory serves, once upon a time I was a Skandies voter.)

I think the final scene is just a fairly uninspired case of coming full circle, ie back to the very first character we saw from the movie, who we haven't seen since; his reappearance is meant to make us take a step back and look at everything that's happened as a whole - and that's all. I realize this sounds banal and trite, but that's all I think the scene is, thematically; a bookend. (Just like the equally unnecessary, if cooler, opening tracking shot.)

Ryan said...

Peace Electric, is that you?

Jared said...

This is the Peace Electric speaking.

I am not jon, but I am present, and now I feel a little bit found out, having just returned from ZODIAC to find an old-school incarnation of my e-persona called out in the most recent comment on a blog I check maybe once every year (no insult to MDA -- my problem is time management). Maybe the eerie synchronicity of all this can simply be explained by the David Fincher connection -- it's hard to think of THE GAME without thinking of Mike -- but then again, maybe not. About 46 seconds before your comment, I was trying to explain to my girlfriend, who was reading the site over my shoulder, about ramc-f, the Skandies, and all that jazz, and suddenly pow wowsa, here I am re-asserting my presence in that world. Life: it's funny like that.

P.S. 46 is 23 + 23.

Anyway, maybe I will say something else later. I think the last time I was lurking here was for that awesome (no sarcasm) debate about the singularity. Good stuff. Oddly I wasn't mentioned in that one. Hmm.

P.P.S. It's hard to write in this little box.

Anonymous said...

i'm not a zodiac buff, but a couple years ago i read up on it (which thanks to zodiac buffs and the internet, is surprisingly a lot). i couldn't see why allen was a slam dunk for graysmith and toschi but i knew he was their zodiac.

so when i went into see zodiac, i knew arthur leigh allen was going to be in it-- and as the film became more about graysmith's obsession than it did the zodiac, i could see why allen was being pushed as the only real suspect. so i thought it interesting that the final scene served to validate graysmith's obsession-- as if to prove there's genius to obsession and look what comes of it, justice! knowledge! but since the whole film had been painting obsession another way, it wasn't hammy, it seemed almost inevitable.

so, as a zodiac buff i don't understand why they didn't talk about the other 3 solid suspects there are more than the end but as a filmgoer, i thought it was a good little bookend scene.

Zach said...

Is this in the book, Mike?:

The day Graysmith went to the store to stare down Allen, he was sitting in his parked car later on when Allen drove by and pulled up alongside Graysmith. He sat there idling and just staring malevolently at Robert before pulling away again.

Moments like that probably go a long way towards Graysmith's conviction that Allen is Zodiac, but it's evidence you can't really present in a case file.

Nictate said...

The best part of this entry was the anecdote about your phony school project scheme. Proactive kid.