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Hold on, there: Ruffalo in Zodiac

The End of an Obsession

 By Shawn Stone


Directed by David Fincher

Director David Fincher, who helped set the template of the serial-killer flick with Se7en, effectively finishes off the genre with Zodiac. Sure, they’ll be more of these movies made—Saw 4, anyone?—but Fincher does such an effective job of demystifying the cult of the murderer that those efforts will seem even more artistically bankrupt than they already do.

How is this done? By making this serial killer a pudgy dork whose murders, while bloody, aren’t presented in the currently fashionable, fetishistic way. In the most horrifying scene, the murderer stalks his victims in a comically lame faux-ninja costume, and then . . . well, see the movie. (The teenage girls in the row ahead of me screamed in genuine shock.)

Why does Fincher get away with it? Because he still manages to make Zodiac an absorbing, enormously entertaining thriller, albeit one in which most of the thrills take place far away from any crime scene. That, and he’s one of the best visual stylists working today.

Fincher frontloads the story with violence, then spends most of the film dealing with various characters’ obsessive quests to identify the killer. Much of the action takes place in the late 1960s to early 1970s, in that quintessential ’70s locus of drama: the newsroom of a major daily newspaper. A self-promoting killer who calls himself “Zodiac” sends letters and notes to the San Francisco Chronicle and other Bay Area newspapers written either in poor English or mysterious codes. A series of idiosyncratic characters try to crack those codes: first boozy, suave crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and the staff at the Chronicle; then Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the charismatic San Francisco detective who taught Steve McQueen how to carry a gun for Bullitt, and partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards); and, finally, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), an overgrown Boy Scout whose obsession with the Zodiac turns his life into a complete mess.

Though it lasts over two and a half hours, Zodiac never slows down. The length has the benefit of making the audience seem as trapped in obsession as the characters. (In a good way.) Fincher populates this tense ride with a procession of unnerving eccentrics and just-the-facts-ma’am cops. Preening lawyer Melvin Belli (a comically patrician Brian Cox), silent-film organist Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer, playfully creepy) and cagey suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) keep things off-kilter; actors Elias Koteas, Philip Baker Hall, Dermot Mulroney and Donal Logue underplay it as the faces of law enforcement.

The subversiveness of the film lies in the fact that the Zodiac was never caught. Yes, the obsessive cartoonist settles on one suspect, and, yes, the film seems to give its imprimatur to the guilt of this character. But “seems” is the key word here: The scene in which Graysmith and Toschi hammer out their final explanation is dramatically satisfying for them; it can also be interpreted as two obsessives settling on an answer so they can move on. Fincher slips in enough subtle visual caveats to keep the mood unsettled, and Zodiac from any real sense of closure.

This, of course, is a kind of commercial perversity. It goes against the rules of the modern serial-killer movie as set out in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs and Fincher’s own Se7en: There’s no cathartic final action scene, and no righteous, bloody retribution.

Which, likely, is what Fincher’s really up to in Zodiac. There’s a scene in the last section of the film when the cartoonist visits a deep-into-the-bottle Avery. Graysmith tries to get the reporter to write a book on the case, but Avery (Downey Jr., in his best “fuck you” mode) stops him cold. Pointing out that more people die on the freeway every year than “that loser” ever killed, Avery tells him to get over it. The suggestion is obvious: We need to stop getting off on being afraid of the bogeyman.

Combine this with the films’ obvious parallels to the post-9/11 atmosphere of fear—the baseless, media-amplified threats by the Zodiac that turn San Francisco upside down, and the snags in the case caused by the inability of various police agencies to share information—and one might get the notion that Fincher is telling us something.

Some of My Best Friends Are Black Snakes

Black Snake Moan

Directed by Craig Brewer

To the best of my knowledge, there are only two types of women in the history of the blues: women who gone done you wrong, and women who ain’t yet gone done you wrong. So, a movie named after a Blind Lemon Jefferson tune is not likely to provide much in the way of feminine empowerment. Adjust your expectations accordingly. OK, now, adjust them a little lower.

Black Snake Moan is not only an overtly sexist film, but racist, as well. The plot—in which a subsistence farmer and former bluesman, Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), takes a rough-and-tumble nymphomaniac, Rae (Christina Ricci), captive in an attempt to cure her of her slatternly ways—is a psychoanalytical minefield: The dramatic crux of the movie is whether or not Lazarus can tame Rae’s unhinged sexuality before he is tempted to mount her himself. In order to protect himself from the terror of Rae’s compulsive libido, he shackles her to his radiator with a 40-pound chain, keeping her in his house like a favored though unruly pet.

Meanwhile, Rae’s boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), makes his way back home after being discharged from the National Guard; his profound anxiety disorder made him unfit for a tour in Iraq. Uh-oh. The good ol’ boy’s whore is shacking up with a black man. Could be trouble. What, with the fear of undomesticated feminine lust, the fear of black male sexuality, the testimony to the phallic charm of the guitar, and the hoary and condescending filmic myth of the “magic nigger,” Black Snake Moan comes across like a chapter summary from The Cracker’s Guide to Filmmaking.

Thing is, it’s kind of, well, fun.

It’s cartoonish and psychologically reductive, yes. But, then again, so is much of the blues. Viewed as a feature-length music video, the movie has a kind of folk-art film-noir charm. There are problems with the movie beyond its insensitivity: the pacing, for example. The movie bogs down more than once, building tension then letting it peter out inexplicably. Stylistically, it takes few risks, though it could have benefited from more of the Tarantino/Rodriguez-style archness it hints at fleetingly. Still, Ricci and Jackson (who, I’m beginning to believe, is not capable of being unenjoyable) manage to capture just the right balance of sexual tension and familial care. Timberlake, too, manages quite nicely as the fragile Ronnie.

There is much to object to in this flick; but writer-director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) cares for his damaged characters, and that goes a long way toward a kind of redemption.

—John Rodat

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