-- 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 (Chloë 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.