09 March 2007

Zodiac redux, or: Which star sign is the Dead Horse?

[This is technically a reply to various queries and arguments posed/proffered in the comments for my previous post; I'm starting anew because this looks to get lengthy enough that it would likely become unreadable in that little box.]

As promised, then, I went back for another look at the movie, this time making a conscious effort to filter everything through its ardent fans' preferred interpretation. Since I apparently wasn't sufficiently clear last time, or in my formal review, let me note again that this is a very good movie, one that I recommend without hesitation to anyone with even the most remote interest in cinema-as-art. Even on second viewing, its nearly three hours fairly raced by; if I had to describe it in a single non-hyphenated word (thus ruling out "obsessive-compulsive"), that word would be "absorbing." However, I now feel quite confident in my conviction that the whole good-men-destroyed-by-irresolution reading is flatly contradicted by what's actually onscreen. For all its daring in dramatizing a famous unsolved nightmare, Zodiac is ultimately the admiring tale of a dogged young amateur who, by dint of sheer persistence and investigatory elbow grease, ultimately succeeds where the police fail, even if the evidence he's amassed won't cut it in a court of law. (I was reminded this time of the climax of several Agatha Christie novels, in which Poirot lays out his theory of the case but admits that he has no proof apart from the fact that no other explanation is psychologically satisfying; the accused invariably responds with a weary confession.)

Let's consider the last few scenes one at a time.

[Need I warn you of spoilers?]


Graysmith corrals Toschi and gives him an excitable précis of the case against Arthur Leigh Allen. Ignore for the moment that much of what he says is a crock of shit.* What matters is that this litany clearly impresses Toschi, who'd previously been not just skeptical but downright hostile. Ruffalo's entire performance in this scene signifies Grudging Respect. What's more, the exchange that concludes this dialogue comes as close to a thesis statement as anything else in the entire picture.

Toschi (of Graysmith's theory): I can't prove this.
Graysmith: Just because you can't prove something doesn't mean it isn't true.

Guys, I don't know how the movie could get a whole lot more blatant than that. Especially since we've already heard Graysmith tell his [second wife? girlfriend? it's never really specified, is it?] that he's no longer concerned with catching the Zodiac—he just wants to look him in the eye and know that it's him. The movie's epistemological upshot isn't that some things can never be known—it's that knowledge per se must sometimes suffice when evidence fails. Pay close attention also to the sincere gratitude in Toschi's voice as they part, and he thanks Graysmith "for breakfast," twice. Knowing that he had the right guy, even if they never quite managed to nail him, is clearly a huge weight off his back. The last time we see him, he's striding toward his office with renewed purpose. (Or that's what it looked like to me. But even if you think I'm laying it on a bit thick, I maintain that nothing in this final shot of Toschi remotely suggests uncertainty or unease.)


Graysmith looks Evil in the face, and the abyss gazes also, etc. It would have been easy for Gyllenhaal to play this moment with a note of hesitation or uncertainty. He doesn't. Instead, he gives a slight nod, signifying that this encounter satisfies him. He knows it's Allen. I defy anyone to point to any element of this brief scene that suggests an iota of doubt in Graysmith's mind about whether he's drawn the correct conclusion. We see a certain amount of fear, but zero doubt.


To say that I looked carefully at this scene is an understatement. But first, let me note that the Michael Mageau we see in the film's first few minutes is hardly some iconic golden boy of whose image the '90s Mageau is but a tattered remnant. As a teenager, Mageau (as depicted by this actor) was already skittish and kinda weird; he's visibly nervous well before the Zodiac's car pulls into the Blue Rock Springs parking lot.** This is a minor point, but I mention it because Josh Rothkopf and others have placed a lot of emphasis on what they perceive as the startling transformation of this character, which really doesn't seem very startling to me. He seems like much the same guy, only older and more tired.

Anyway, back to the lineup scene. Sorry, folks, but there's no equivocation to be found here. Mageau looks at the pictures for just a few seconds before pointing at Allen and saying "That's him." At no point thereafter does he waver. He does parenthetically note that the shape of Allen's face, as he recalls it from that night, more closely resembles one of the other men in the lineup, but this detail has no bearing on the identification itself, and Mageau makes that very clear when questioned. (This would be less confusing had he just said something along the lines of "He was fatter then than he is in this picture," rather than using another picture to illustrate the same point.) And people are reading way too much into the words "at least an 8," apparently believing that any answer other than "11" on a scale of 1-10 connotes deep uncertainty. Again, it would have been easy for the actor playing Mageau to depict the ID as hesitant, or for James LeGros (playing Bawart) to look troubled or skeptical. Neither does. "I'm very sure this is the man who shot me" is the last thing Mageau says, and the words ring with conviction. He's clearly leaning toward 9 or 10, merely offering 8 as the worst-case scenario out of prudence, mostly because the shape of Allen's face isn't quite what he remembers.


Not only do they not contradict the indictment of Allen that precedes them, they go out of their way to confirm it. The film allows that a DNA sample failed to match Allen, but undermines this evidence in the same breath by noting (a) the age of the sample in question and (b) that investigators haven't ruled Allen out as a suspect as a result. It reveals that Allen was about to be formally charged, and that only his sudden death "saved" him. Further down, we learn that Allen remains the only viable suspect in the three counties where the Zodiac investigation hasn't yet been officially closed. Finally, we discover that Graysmith's mysterious phone calls ceased altogether after Allen's death. How anyone could find this information self-contradictory or ambiguous I really have no idea; it's about as conclusive as it can be given that there's no real proof. And the reprise of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" over the end credits doesn't negate any of the aforementioned, at least to me. "The narrative effect may be one of closure," Bryant Frazer insists, "but the recurrence of that damned song throws the doors wide open again." To the extent that the Zodiac was never caught, sure. I'm not saying the ending isn't a little creepy. But the movie has a clear resolution: Graysmith figures it out, and is finally content with the knowledge that he is right. See also: both of his books.

Good movie, yes. Postmodern masterpiece, uh-uh.

* Example: The allegedly significant correlation between the Zodiac's silence and Allen's imprisonment on child-molestation charges. In truth, the Zodiac's last confirmed letter was sent months before Allen's conviction, and the 1978 letter sent shortly after his release is now widely considered a fake. (To my mind it's clearly a fake, unless the Zodiac spent the intervening four years attending group therapy and "getting his head straight.")

** I also noticed this time that both screenplay and actress hint that Darlene Ferrin knew, or at least thought she knew, who was following them, which of course supports Graysmith's eventual case against Allen.


matt prigge said...

Just for the record, you're forgetting Toschi's response to Graysmith's "Just because you can't prove it doesn't mean it isn't true" line: "Easy there, Dirty Harry."

There's also other lines suggesting that, while Toschi has renewed respect for Graysmith (or at least sees him as more than just a nut who's annoying him), he's not entirely buying it. "Pretend you're not a cop," Graysmith tells him, in the hopes that he'll just confess that he agrees with his thesis. "But I am a cop," Toschi replies.

Personally, I don't think it matters whether Toschi agrees with Graysmith's thesis, or even if Graysmith believes it. Graysmith is only the lead character in the second half, and I think the film steps far enough away from him to paint him as more than a little unreliable. (The whole Charles Fleischer scene, for one, which is played for jokey suspense -- i.e., why would he be so terrified of a guy who's linked by one minor piece of circumstantial evidence?) *He* may be sure Allen is his man, but I still don't think Fincher and Vanderbilt are.


you're right mikey d. dammnit.


i think everyone just needs to accept the fact that zodiac is not the film they wanted it to be. The way the film is constructed 96.4% of the people who come out of the theater will be convinced that allen is the zodiac and not give it a second thought.

Anonymous said...

Interesting/ironic that the critics of Mike's reading of the film are basically relying on deeply speculative, wishful-thinking, I've-already-made-up-my-mind methods of interpretation (i.e. just because they can't prove it doesn't mean it isn't true) to convince themselves that the entire thrust of the film's conclusion (i.e. "just because you can't prove it doesn't mean it isn't true") isn't there. Their "certainty" about the film's supposed lack of closure is analogous to the "certainty" that allows the film to provide the sense of closure they're denying the existence of in the first place.

Thus, I think it's only fair to argue that Mike's critics actually agree with him, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is indulging in a laughably facile, surface-level reading of their supposed "criticisms," which ignores the haunting intimations of uncertainty and unknowability just below the surface.

In fact, I'd go so far as to declare the whole comments page an unsettling postmodern masterpiece!

Unlike the movie.

Ryan Tracy said...

Mike, you're right. Whether it means to or not, the film makes a very convincing case against Arthur Leigh Allen. As much as I prefer Nathan Lee's reading of the film to yours, I must admit I agree with you that that final bit about the exculpatory DNA evidence was too little way too late. Too damning of a case has already been built. That said, and maybe I'm just trying to work for the film, what are your thoughts on the Bob Vaughn scene that Matt mentioned above? After all, Graysmith learns that Vaughn, and not Allen, was the one who wrote out all the movie posters.

Matt Noller said...

"Interesting/ironic that the critics of Mike's reading of the film are basically relying on deeply speculative, wishful-thinking, I've-already-made-up-my-mind methods of interpretation"

I hate this.

I certainly allow for the possibility that my reading of the film is an attempt to justify the deep, unsettling emotional reaction I had to Zodiac. But the fact that I had this reaction to both of my viewings (so far) and for the exact reasons you denounce as "shallow" and "wishful thinking" suggest that - at the very least - my interpretation is at least a valid personal one.

And please don't suggest that I - or any other of the film's many supporters - am wrong or wildly trying to justify my expectations just because you disagree. I for one had no expectations going in. In fact, I expected another Seven. The only thing I knew going in was that in real life they had never caught the killer. So I'm not trying to explain away a movie that just doesn't match up with my expected interpretation. Everything I think about the movie can, I think, be justified by what's on screen. Am I wrong? Possibly. Mike makes some good arguments. But don't try to tell me that I know I'm wrong. It makes you sound ridiculous.

Does the movie think Allen's the killer? Maybe. Probably. But it certainly brings up the fact that it's unprovable on several occasions; the movie leaves no doubt that the physical evidence does not support him as Zodiac.

And I don't buy that the belief in Allen-as-Zodiac undermines the film's lack of catharsis. The fact of the matter is, even if Allen was Zodiac, he got away with it. He was never caught. There's no Hollywood ending. Dirty Harry doesn't get to shoot him in the chest. Even if you think that the scene in the hardware store is conclusive, and I'm not sure it is - certainly that's debatable - I think there's a deep sadness to the fact that that's all Graysmith was able to get.

Would Zodiac be better if it ended without giving any idea of whom the killer may have been? I don't know. It would be a different movie, with a different purpose. The Zodiac that exists on screens forces the audience to settle for a catharsis that is imperfect at best. And maybe 96.4% of the audience will walk away from the movie satisfied. To me, the exposure of mankind's obsessive, desperate need for closure, the same type of obsession that consumes Graysmith and Toschi (and Zodiac is very much a movie about obsession), is exactly what left me so upset and unsettled after each of my viewings.

(And this I think also ties into the scene with Vaughn. Graysmith finds out one small, insignificant fact - that Vaughn wrote the posters - and is suddenly convinced Vaughn's the guy. And so are we, which Fincher exploits by making the scene the movie's only true suspense set-piece. But that's silly, and moments later, once it becomes clear that that whole lead has gone nowhere, we all know it. Our need for answers, for a solid sense of closure, has caused us to blow one little bit of information totally out of proportion.)

md'a said...

The whole Charles Fleischer scene, for one, which is played for jokey suspense -- i.e., why would he be so terrified of a guy who's linked by one minor piece of circumstantial evidence?

Maybe because the entire scene is an exercise in cheap booga-booga? I suppose the default argument here would be that we're seeing Vaughn and his house as the suddenly frightened Graysmith perceive them, but that's pretty shaky given that at no other point does the film employ that sort of visual subjectivity. This seemed more like an attempt to goose the audience a little than an attempt to portray Graysmith as losing his shit.

Something else occurred to me this morning. I can understand to some extent why the movie fades from Kathleen Johns' abductor threatening to throw her baby out the window to Johns frantic on the side of the road. (You'd never know it from the film, but the guy drove Johns around for two to three hours before she escaped.) But it's odd that we don't get the potentially dramatic scene in which she sees the Zodiac composite at the police station and identifies him as the perp. In fact, we don't ever see this famous composite in Zodiac, even when there's talk elsewhere about revising it based on the description of the two cops who saw him when they were mistakenly looking for a black dude. Gee, I wonder why not.

Anonymous said...

>>I hate this. [...] Everything I think about the movie can, I think, be justified by what's on screen.

Fair enough; my snark was obnoxious and uncalled for, and I apologize. I hate when folks use anyonymity as a shield for rampant assholery, but apparently I'm not above doing it myself. (Still gonna remain anonymous, though. After all, I'm the real Zodiac killer; gotta be careful.) If you're deeply moved and unsettled, that's all that really matters; you can try to analyze a person's gut reaction but you can never take it away from 'em.

I think my reaction is borne of frustration; I saw the movie with someone who had exactly the same response I'm seeing in most of the "this is a masterpiece" folks - he also felt that the ending emphasized the unsolved nature of the case, and the unknowability of the truth. I guess I just have a hard time fathoming how someone can take this away from the film's conclusion without disregarding almost everything that's in front of them during those concluding minutes, and it's frustrating that the most prevalent arguments I've encountered basically amount to "Are you really reading the film so shallowly as to assume that the content of the ending is somehow meaningful?" I guess I'm still just utterly puzzled by these folks' reactions, in spite of what they've said so far. It's as mystifying to me as if folks started insisting that FIGHT CLUB's Tyler Durden is supposed to be a real guy who exists corporeally apart from the narrator, in spite of everything we learn in the third act.

I'd be curious to hear from anyone who *does* unequivocally read the ending as saying "Allen was Zodiac" *and* considers the movie a masterpiece, 'cause so far the 2 opinions seem mutually exclusive. Unless maybe you're Robert Graysmith. Anybody?


Clearly the best ending would have been to indicate that Graysmith has found his answer that Zodiac is Allen (which is true: he's supposedly certain of it.) But that the truth is far from known for other observers. the closest the film comes to making such a point is graysmith's insistence that rick marshall is who that girl knows in jail (sorry don't remember the movie that well) the idea being that he's lost sight of the truth and only cares about finding a satisfactory answer whether it's true or not.

So you could argue that the last act of the film serves as nothing more than graysmiths' delusional interpretation of the facts preceding. And the film is a masterpiece by first presenting facts, then presenting one person's interpretation of those facts and attempts to make some logical sense of them.

But that's a stretch I feel, and what the movie could have been, not what it is. Because as mike points out, the last scene doesn't even involve graysmith so it can't be subjective, and the entire movie is about supporting graysmith's hypothesis and casting doubts on others.

Anonymous said...

Hi, people I don't know.

What follows is my stab at a final scene. It's inspired by this:


It can follow from the 'ID ending' fairly comfortably.

Title: 2006

Int. Night: Graysmith's Home.
A moonlit inventory of an empty study. It stands in stark contrast to Graysmith's old apartment. It is tidy, professional. Spacious. Along the walls we can spot reminders of the decades spent tracking Zodiac: a framed cipher; an autographed picture of Melvin Belli. Trophies of a hunt.

The phone on the desk begins to ring. After the answering machine launches into a default, computerized greeting, a door opens, and a figure enters, smoothly reaching for the receiver and stopping the machine.

Hello? Sorry, I was out working in the garage.

Is this Robert Graysmith?

It is.

He is nearly unrecognizable. Older, yes, but something behind the eyes has changed. He looks relaxed, content.

Yes? How can I help you, please?

Well, Mr. Graysmith, my name is Mike Butterfield, and I wonder if you could clear up something that's been bothering me. You see, you make reference in "Zodiac Unmasked" to the December 18 call to Melvin Belli taken by Mr. Belli's maid, and to a corroborative FBI report, numbered JL521? I've requested a copy of the incident report, which gives the date of the call as "12/21", not the 18th. Can you comment on the discrepancy between-

Who did you say you were again?

My name is Mike Butterfield, Mr. Graysmith. I'm working on a-

(a pause)
Oh, I know who you are. I know all about you. I know what you’re doing. I don’t want to talk about that right now, I’ll, I’ll call you back.

As Graysmith returns the phone to it's cradle, we hear:

Um, ok. Do you want to take my phone nu-


Graysmith stands in the dark, alone in his study. He is staring at the caller id readout. A number flashes back at him. He looks unsure, agitated.

Below the readout is a button which reads, "Delete Message".

It takes him a moment, but Graysmith pushes the button.

Cut to black.


yeah or end it with a scene at a book reading or panel discussion in which audience members shoot holes in his theory and present their own. I'm sure that happened at some point in book promotion. That would have probably pissed off graysmith though.

Anonymous said...

"anonymous" wrote:

"I'd be curious to hear from anyone who *does* unequivocally read the ending as saying "Allen was Zodiac" *and* considers the movie a masterpiece, 'cause so far the 2 opinions seem mutually exclusive. Unless maybe you're Robert Graysmith. Anybody?"

Right here, friend. Not only do I think the movie implicates Allen *and* is a masterpiece, but I actually do believe that Allen was the Zodiac. (While I love Mike's anecdote about traveling to San Fran as a teen, he's hardly the final authority; I've read plenty of material that's convincing.)

As a result, I have no problem with the film pointing the finger. Like I've maintained from the start, ZODIAC is a film about obsession, though in no way does that have to be exclusive from the massive irony that the police actually interrogated the right person and he walked. To me, that's a cathartic note, dark and very unusual for a studio film that isn't glorifying its Hannibal Lecter or whoever.

ZODIAC is much closer to DIRTY HARRY than people may realize; both films implicate their heros as obsessives (even peeping toms), cops thwarted by warrants and proper channels of law. Of course, Siegel's movie becomes a bona-fide fantasy with its resolution, while ZODIAC transcends it by presenting what happens when we *don't* become Dirty Harrys. You can wave the killer in front of our face -- he can even insult us, with that line about the "day when police are not referred to as pigs" -- and he still can leave. We have to deal with that, with the fact that our justice system will often rebuff the efforts of good people. That's masterpiece territory, in my view.

md'a said...

I actually do believe that Allen was the Zodiac.

I'm curious as to how you reconcile this belief with the physical evidence. It requires that you believe

(a) that Allen either disguised his handwriting so brilliantly that nobody could detect it, or had a confederate who wrote the letters for him;

(b) that none of the various fingerprints lifted from Zodiac letters, nor the fingerprint found in blood in Stine's cab, belonged to the Zodiac;

(c) that something somehow went awry with the DNA test, or that the Zodiac got somebody else to lick his envelopes for him (yeahright);

(d) that the kids at Washington/Cherry and the two cops who saw the Zodiac immediately after the Stine killing somehow came up with a description that resembles Allen in no respect whatsoever;

(e) that Allen was crafty enough to beat a 10-hour polygraph.

One or even two of the above might be plausible, but all five? This is the mirror image of the arguments for O.J. Simpson's innocence.