David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, edited by Matthew Sorrento and David Ryan. 259 pp. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2022.
2007 was a good year for American film, with the likes of the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood earning heaps of critical and popular adoration. Coupled with their success at the Academy Awards (the former won four, including for Best Picture; the latter two), the films’ positions as “instant classics” are well cemented.
Somewhat neglected among discussions of this banner year, on the other hand, is David Fincher’s true-crime epic Zodiac; though initially left in its contemporaries’ shadows (as a point of comparison, it received zero nominations), it may very well have aged better than either of them. If Anderson’s and the Coens’ outings were dirges on late capitalism, then Fincher’s was something of a prophecy – one that anticipated the post-truth morass of our digital age. Given this unexpected prescience, Zodiac is ripe for critical reassessment.
Enter David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, courtesy of editors Matthew Sorrento and David Ryan. What makes this particular film so alluring is its unique position as a literary adaptation, a piece of narrative nonfiction (one based on a still-unsolved case, no less), a self-reflective critique of news and multimedia, and a relatively early exemplar of what digital cameras can do in the right hands. The book mines these and many other critical avenues – from game theory, to death metal – with somewhat inconsistent, but never dull, results. While reading it, I was reminded more than once of Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) climactic, fevered conversation with investigator David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) in the diner: “This is a case that’s covered both Northern and Southern California, with victims and suspects spread over hundreds of miles,” he tells Toschi as he struggles to connect the case’s overwhelming number of dots. Like the film itself, this collection has its fingers in many pots, is borderline obsessive, and makes some ambitious connections that may or may not actually be there. But, of course, that’s part of the fun.
The three chapters comprising the first section, “Before Fincher,” situate the real crimes in a wider cultural context: Matthew Sorrento’s “Framing the ‘Mass’ Killer” traces the genesis of the crime-horror hybrid genre to Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968); Christopher Weedman’s “Fear and Exploiting in the Age of Aquarius” considers three 1971 releases – which range from escapist thrillers (Dirty Harry), to quasi-documentaries (The Zodiac Killer) and even softcore porn (Sam Dobbs Meets the Zodiac) – made contemporaneously with the original investigation; and Rod Lott’s “Hacked to Pisces” features an extended interview with Tom Hanson, director of The Zodiac Killer. Each chapter is impressive in its own right, though the closing interview with Hanson feels a bit tacked-on. The history behind the film itself – Hanson released it as a stunt designed to catch the notorious serial killer, whom he thought couldn’t resist attending a screening – offers far more insight than the director’s nostalgic reminiscences and posturing statements about “catch[ing] that son of a bitch.”
“Zodiac and Narrative,” the text’s midsection, focuses largely on the troubling intersections between cartoonist-cum-amateur detective Graysmith and the criminal himself. In “Zodiac and the Melding Criminal Minds of David Fincher,” Jeremy Carr characterizes Graysmith (“The man or the character?” one may ask, a question the authors openly grapple with) as being on “a pariah plane analogous to Zodiac himself,” while Theresa Rodewald suggests the protagonist “gets as close to the killer as anyone because of … [their] shared characteristics” in “Subverting the Investigator as Hero.” The section concludes with Daniel R. Fredrick’s “Performing the Zodiac,” a rhetorical analysis concerned with delineating and deconstructing the ethos – one paradoxically revelatory and cryptic, instructional and misleading – the killer established through his infamous coded letters to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Considering their explicatory focus, these chapters are closest in spirit to typical close readings; however, none of the authors offer the rote interpretations to which such readings occasionally resort. Take George Toles’ “Allegories of Obsession.” The author’s comparative analysis – rather than taking the expected route of juxtaposing Fincher’s work with The Most Dangerous Game (1932), to which the former frequently alludes – considers Zodiac in relation to 1934’s The Black Cat. According to Toles, “though vastly different from Zodiac in style and narrative terrain, [The Black Cat] resembles it in its delineation of the process whereby a central character’s obsessive derangement becomes our only means of access to external reality.” Most intriguing is Toles’ discussion of how Fincher subtly dips into sonic Expressionism: first, when a “thumping heartbeat becomes audible” at the end of the initial interview with prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch); and again when “an ominous, whirring sound (as if issuing from a wind tunnel) arises on the soundtrack” right before Graysmith’s nail-biting encounter in Bob Vaughn’s (Charles Fleischer) basement.
The collection’s final section, “Zodiac and Narrative,” is its most ambitious – equal parts enthralling and unwieldy in its sweeping “discussions of media, and … the intertextuality related to Zodiac overall.” Some entries, like Andrew M. Winters’ “The Zodiac Strikes a Blue Chord,” feel conspicuously out of place. Winters’ introduction reiterates fundamental information, such as how Graysmith’s “book served as the basis for David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac”; as a result, the essay seems to have come from an entirely different text – one dedicated, perhaps, to “art-horror” music in genre film. Others, like Martin Kevorkian’s “The Dantesque Desires of David Fincher’s Zodiac,” don’t quite fit within the section’s focus on multimedia and data. But even these outliers have much to offer. Consider Kevorkian’s deft untangling of the intertextuality underlying fictional characters inspired by the real Toschi: “If … [Steve] McQueen as Bullitt got something from Toschi, and it further appears that the Zodiac got something from Bullitt [namely, his choice of vehicle: a Ford Mustang], then the Zodiac is already the copy of the copy of the cop who will investigate him.” Here, we get an inkling of how topical the film’s subject matter may be; this story of life imitating art imitating life would feel right at home in a trending Instagram or Twitter story (I’m reminded, oddly enough, of Janicza Bravo’s Zola, 2021).
It’s in its final three chapters that David Fincher’s Zodiac finds its surest footing, as the authors consider the film’s (in)direct commentary on the nature of knowledge, data, and reality itself. Standout chapter “Algorithmic Anxiety,” by Jake Rutkowski, focuses on “data hegemony” – that is, “the ubiquity of digital systems of information exchange” – both in front of and behind the camera; just as the killer manipulates data through his mailed ciphers, Fincher does so through his unique approach to digital filmmaking, one that “reflect[s] concerns over corporeality and physical existence in a digital age.” As evidence, Rutkowski cites Zodiac’s visual framework, wherein “facelessness and shadow provide nice metaphors for the detachment that pervades life in an age of data hegemony.” David Ryan’s “Gaming the Ripper Coast,” the penultimate chapter, also takes a data-driven approach – this time in terms of problem-solving and game theory within tightly structured and stratified organizations (be they local police departments or federal agencies). Ryan’s piece is a bit less cohesive than Rutkowski’s, though, since the former juggles perhaps a few too many moving pieces (he integrates personal narrative, historical analysis of the real crimes, and game theory, with excursions into the film proper). Even so, the piece exemplifies what criticism can do beyond comparative analyses and close readings.
Deborah J. Jaramillo’s closing chapter, “The Killers Speak,” puts Zodiac in conversation with Fincher’s latest foray into true crime: the short-lived Netflix series Mindhunter (2017-2019). A crucial distinction between the two projects – one that marks what appears to be a shift in Fincher’s style – concerns an increasing reliance on sonic over visual representations of violence. Zodiac arguably embodies the apotheosis of Fincher’s visual stylization of violence; Jaramillo explicates each of the major murder scenes, including the taxicab killing of Paul Stine, during which “slow motion prolongs the shooting and dying so that probably two seconds of action stretch into seven.”
Mindhunter, on the other hand, relies on “dialogue as a vehicle for horrific detail,” a proclivity most evident in Holden Ford’s (Jonathan Groff) extended interviews with serial killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton). Particularly illuminating is the author’s suggestion that the series is more indebted to horror shows on early radio than it is to cinema. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not Fincher “deploys dialogue to convey violence” in his upcoming adaptation of the graphic novel The Killer.
That the U.S. is obsessed with serial killers is no revelation – Christopher Sharrett’s foreword describes how our “cult of murder … was always manifest, from frontier gunfighters to valorizations of mass death in the age of the atom” – but the Zodiac case stands out for how frustratingly (and appealingly) opaque it remains. This emptiness, this ambiguity at the center of the case may be what prompts a viewer of Zodiac to consider “our fascination with the truth behind enigmas, more than the glamorization.” The disturbing, implicit question is whether or not we’d rather the case stay unsolved. If the answer is in the affirmative, then what does that say about us – not just as consumers of entertainment, but also as data gatherers submerged under a constant stream of multimodal information, or as humans in a world whose increasing digitization may instill more uncertainty than security? Have we not all become a little like Robert Graysmith, accumulating “boxes” of vaguely related information that may yet prove to be completely pointless?
We struggle to make coherent connections, but what Fincher (as well as the contributors to this illuminating text) understands is that this process can be exhilarating in and of itself – regardless of whether or not the breadcrumbs really lead anywhere. Of course, it can also be maddening. “Nothing makes sense anymore,” Graysmith says near the end of the film. How many of us – staring into a computer screen’s abyss – have thought the same thing?
All images are screenshots from the film.