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Understanding Obsession: A Closer Look at “Zodiac”

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, March 7, 2007

I wasn’t sure what to think of “Zodiac” at first. There were a ton of issues with it – it was too long, it was too unfocused, Gyllenhaal’s character wasn’t developed enough, it didn’t resolve anything. But the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t stop thinking about it. “Zodiac” has that mark of a great film: the ability to get under your skin and stay there, which is a sure sign of its cinematic merit.

Not that I was ever sure what to think of director David Fincher in the first place. I like “Se7en,” dislike “Fight Club,” have mixed feelings on “Panic Room” and am indifferent to “The Game.” It was always obvious that he is a director of great skill and talent, but I honestly felt like “Se7en” was the only film that came close to fulfilling his enormous potential … until now.

While it lacks the flashiness of typical blockbusters and requires a good deal of cinematic patience, “Zodiac” is Fincher’s most rewarding work to date. Eschewing the overly-filmic technique of “Fight Club” in favor of a classic, restrained style, “Zodiac” moves leisurely, a surprising yet ultimately welcome trait in what purports to be a traditional Hollywood piece.

“Zodiac” is a crime film, but only in the loosest sense of the term. There are obligatory scenes of detectives investigating, and police officers trying to coordinate and figure out whodunit. But there’s a feeling of inevitability – we seem to understand, inherently, that no matter how hard these men try, they are doomed to failure.

“Zodiac” is a period piece, but only in its attention to detail. The San Francisco Chronicle, according to the real-life Robert Graysmith, was lovingly and accurately recreated. Yet for a film that takes place in the late-sixties, we hardly see any hippies or elements of counter-culture, or get much information about the turmoil that America is undergoing. Such frivolousness would detract from the film’s sense of purpose.

“Zodiac” is a film about a serial killer, but only in the loosest sense of the term. We don’t get to know the killer (or even conclusively figure out who he really is), so we don’t get any insight into his motivation – he’s not Hannibal Lector or Norman Bates or even John Doe. The chase is not a means to an end, the chase defines the picture. The killer is almost irrelevant.

“Zodiac” is, foremost, a film about obsession. It’s about three men who become caught up in an unsolvable case, and ultimately lose their lives to a serial killer, but not in a traditional (or physical) sense. Instead, they become consumed by their obsession, and lose parts of their souls in the frustration that follows. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, loses his wife and his job. Detective David Toschi loses his job and his reputation. And reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) loses himself, ending his days in a drugged-stupor on a houseboat.

That, more than anything, is what makes “Zodiac” so disturbing, so effective and, ultimately, so powerful. By the end of the film’s considerable 160-minute running time, we’re not so sure that actually catching the killer would change anything. When Gyllenhaal, near the film’s conclusion, walks into a hardware store, we understand that it’s the closest to a resolution that Fincher will allow us to get. “Zodiac” is not a film about resolution, because that would be contrary to its point.

I left the theater disturbed, even haunted. What the killer had done to his victims was disturbing, and the fact that he was never caught even more so. But the truly haunting part was seeing what happened to the three victims the killer never knew – the ordinary men who became swept up in an extraordinary event, and risked their lives and their souls in an obsessive search for understanding.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Brian Doxtader at bdoxtade@nd.edu