Editor’s note: The following is a conversation about David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac. It was inspired by Twitter conversation about whether it is, in fact, an ambiguous movie, as many have claimed, or if it only seems that way; if it's open, closed, or somewhere in between.
The participants are Sarah D. Bunting, publisher of TomatoNation and the true-crime blog The Blotter; Mike D’Angelo, film critic for the Las Vegas Weekly and a regular contributor to The A.V. Club, among other outlets; and Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic of New York and co-founder of Press Play.
Matt Zoller Seitz: Zodiac is very much an open-ended, in some ways deliberately frustrating movie. David Fincher directed the script by James Vanderbilt, which was based mainly on the writings of the film’s main character, the cartoonist turned amateur detective Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). One of the things that makes the movie stand out from other thrillers is how it sticks with a pretty conventional structure, and yet in the end, we don't know who did it. The frustration of knowing that we don’t know is at the heart of the film’s power.
Sarah D. Bunting: It is and it isn't ambiguous. It's ambiguous about whodunnit, certainly, and has no choice in that regard; the case is unsolved, and it's not one of those "technically open" cases (op. cit. Lizzie Borden) where everyone's basically in agreement as to who did it but no charges were filed. Even the casting is ambiguous. The IMDb entry for the film lists four Zodiacs, played by three different dudes, none of whom is John Carroll Lynch’s character Arthur Lee Allen, or that creeper film archivist played by Bob Vaughn. So there's that.
But where I think the film is unambiguous is in its understanding that everyone involved with the case needs to have it solved, or to believe something; that until something final is arrived at, it's going to torture the cops and the columnists and Graysmith.
Mike D’Angelo: I lean more much toward isn’t than is.
Zodiac was based on two books by Graysmith, both of which attempt to make the case that Arthur Leigh Allen was the killer. Indeed, the second book is called Zodiac Unmasked, and clearly means to accomplish precisely that. And the film, to its slight detriment (I do like it overall), follows Graysmith closely. In particular, the last 10 minutes make what I consider a pretty unequivocal case that Allen was the perp, and I just don't see the maddening uncertainty claimed by the movie's most rabid fans.
But I'm willing to be convinced!
Matt: I see Graysmith becoming increasingly convinced that he knows who did it, and increasingly frustrated that he can't definitively prove it. But I feel like the movie draws a clear line between what Graysmith believes, or wants to believe, and what the script is telling that we can believe.
It kind of goes back to what Sarah was saying: that so much of the film's energy comes from tapping that incredibly fierce desire to believe something, to have a definite answer. One of my favorite sayings is that I like ambiguity in art and certainty in life. Zodiac gets that, and I think to some degree, it's about that. The story is ambiguous even though certain characters feel certain.
And here I want to share a fragment of a piece I wrote for my first blog, The House Next Door, back when Zodiac came out:
"It's conventionally structured but unconventionally conceived and shot—a long, deliberately repetitious movie with an inconclusive ending about people whose obsession with justice bore no fruit. Its three central characters—[Detective Dave] Toschi, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith believe, like all driven movie heroes, that they can succeed where others failed; obsession gives them delusions of grandeur, alienates them from their colleagues and families and leads them to the edge of madness, but never to the truth.
Zodiac's 158-minute running time contains scenes that repeat as the story unfolds; the versions have different, often frustrating outcomes. About a dozen years after the killer's first appearance, Toschi's original partner (Anthony Edwards) retires, and Toschi lamely tries to repeat the shtick with his new partner, who isn't having it; likewise, after Avery flames out from paranoia and substance abuse, his acolyte Graysmith tries to re-create their unlikely newsroom friendship with Avery's replacement (Adam Goldberg) who can't be bothered. Time changes everything but the narrative's forgone conclusion (or non-conclusion). Nearly four decades after Zodiac's first kill, his identity is still shrouded in darkness."
Sarah: Yeah, I think you have three belief systems here: what the viewer believes; what Graysmith believes; and what the film believes.
It's clear Graysmith believes that Allen is the guy; viewers will believe . . . that, maybe, or will look at the chyron postscript about Allen's DNA (and the refusal of various jurisdictions to rule him out based on that) and think it's not him.
I have to say, I don't think the film "believes" anything one way or the other. It's not as interested in the answer as it is in why these people have become so obsessed with the question.
Mike's comment about the inconclusive ending being "maddening" to fans is interesting, though. Who would be a fan of this movie if they couldn't tolerate not getting a definitive ruling at the end? (Unless you just really like Downey's performance, which, fair enough.)
Mike: See, I feel like all three of the belief systems Sarah enumerates converge at the end. (Prior to that, I'm in complete agreement with both of you.) What Graysmith believes is clear. But in the last few minutes, we see him persuade Toschi; everything about Ruffalo's performance in that scene conveys dawning respect.
And the final scene, which I think was a huge mistake, doesn't involve Graysmith at all—it depicts one of the Zodiac's surviving victims positively identifying Allen from a photo lineup. Then every single sentence of the chyron scrawl at the end implicates Allen, apart from a couple of details they had to mention like the DNA mismatch (which gets undermined in the very same sentence). It's not just Graysmith. The film buys into it too.
“THE PROBLEM IS CONTENT, NOT FORM”
Matt: It fascinates me, Mike, this take you've got going here. It's almost like you're saying the film is pretending to be something it really isn't, and I just don't get that at all.
Mike: I don't think it's pretending to be something it's not. I think it loses its way at the end because it's sticking so closely to Graysmith's book (which ends exactly the same way the film does).
Sarah: For the record, I love that ending. I like that the investigator (James LeGros and his awesome/awful hair) is trying, and kind of failing, not to prompt Mike Mageau into sticking with that first ID of Allen.
I also think if we'd gone out on that staredown between Graysmith and Allen in the hardware store, that would have felt pat and unsatisfying in a different way.
But I don't think Mike and I are that far apart. I'm just interpreting certain moments as having more "but on the other hand…" in them than he is. I also think that if the movie were more accurate in its characterization of Graysmith as an obsessive-compulsive know-it-all, vs. a cute pest who looks like Jake Gyllenhaal, we might see it differently.
Matt: Mike, can you elaborate a little on how you think the movie "loses its way" at the end? I mean, in terms of form and content, I guess. What's it doing, or doing wrong?
Mike: The problem is content, not form. If the film means to leave us with the idea that the Zodiac case made obsessive near-madmen out of the people struggling to solve it, or just come to terms with it, there's way too much in the way of a closing argument and not nearly enough undermining of said argument.
That's what I'd like to hear from you especially, Matt. What's happening on the surface is pretty plain: Graysmith lays out all the evidence against Allen, a victim IDs Allen, etc. How is Fincher (and/or Vanderbilt) complicating that? What are we seeing/hearing that should make us doubt the certitude of the characters?
Matt: The look of the film, for one thing. The style. The whole vibe of it.
What cinches the ambiguous take for me is Fincher's emphasis on revealing darkness. That's partly a function of how he shot the film, in very low light with an HD camera, and also the use of screen space: lots of acreage, lots of shots that diminish the character or shroud people in shadow. That sets up a fascinating contrast between what the film is telling us about these investigators—right up to and including the ending—and what the characters are feeling.
Mike: There’s not a lot of darkness in the end stretch I'm talking about, though. The diner, the hardware store, the airport room where the photo lineup happens—all well, conventionally lit. I'm talking specifically about the last ten minutes. As I say, I do think that prior to that, your interpretation is on the money.
Matt: See, I think it's important, and that it works, that we see less darkness at the end. It's an ironic and appropriate way to shoot that final stretch, because we think we're getting closer to The Answer, but we stop short of it.
It's this movie's version of the horror movie strategy, gradually revealing more and more of the monster. Only here, we really don't see the monster. The movie denies us that clear look, even as it's making us crave it.
THE LAND OF TINFOIL HATS
Sarah: Graysmith undermines his own argument, frequently. Not in the last ten minutes. But some of the connections he draws in his research (and the film actually minimizes the miasma of bonko that attends some of his writings in real life) are from the land of tinfoil hats.
Mike: Sarah, I think Graysmith is dead wrong, for the record. Having spent a lot of time researching the case (from long, long before the movie was made—starting in 1981), I'm convinced Allen was not the Zodiac. Just a sidenote.
Sarah: I don't think it's him either. He has the most circumstantial evidence arrayed against him; it wouldn't have gotten him convicted. I do think the movie wants us to think that it's probably Allen…despite Graysmith, not because of Graysmith.
Matt: It's kind of funny in retrospect to see Zero Dark Thirty, knowing about its production history. It went into preproduction before they caught Bin Laden, and it was supposed to be more like Zodiac, as I understand it: a movie about living with not knowing, or without justice, whatever that means to you. Then they killed Bin Laden, and there was closure! History intervened with notes instead of the studio. And yet the two movies still have a lot in common, including a kind of mysterious, the-ground-is-shifting-under-our-feet vibe, coupled with a definite outcome and a lone wolf protagonist that we root for, and believe might be right.
I'm fascinated by movies like Zodiac — movies that adopt what seem to be very conventional approaches and then frustrate the hell out of us. Our moviegoing DNA is encoded with particular expectations, which Zodiac refuses to satisfy. We get a few inches from the finish line, but we don't go over. In some ways I think that’s more radical than if it had taken a more "art film" approach, a Blow-Up or The Conversation kind of approach.
Sarah: I wonder if that says more about the subject than the directorial approach?
Matt: Maybe it says more about the audience!
Sarah: It does in my case. Heh. “Lindbergh baby? I hope you bitches packed a lunch.”
Mike: See, in the end, for me, it kind of boils down to this: If your goal is to reveal more and more and more but ultimately leave the viewer hanging in the way you describe, why in heaven's name would you have the last thing in the movie be a victim saying, very forthrightly, "Last time I saw this face was July 4, 1969. I'm very sure that's the man who shot me." CUT TO BLACK. (Followed by a bunch of chyrons further implicating Allen.) It just doesn't make sense to me.
Matt: Well, I think you're making the ending sound more definite than it actually feels — or more definite than it felt to me, anyway. We know they never caught the Zodiac. All they had were hunches.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GRAYSMITH
Sarah: I didn't find the ending bothersome, or have those expectations for it, but I have read so much about unsolved cases that that's no longer an issue for me. There's a quote from John Douglas, the FBI profiler sensei, with regard to JonBenet Ramsay, where he says that every case has a bunch of misleading/irrelevant "evidence" that doesn't fit, and you have to learn to live with that. I always think of that quote when I watch the end of Zodiac.
But I disagree with Mike that the ending is that forthright: "It could also be this guy…he had a face like this. No, sorry, it's the first guy I pointed at." Followed by a chyron saying Allen was not indicated by the DNA sample.
Mike: Ah, but he doesn't say "it could also be this guy." He's very clear at all times that it's Allen. He uses one of the other photos as a way of noting how Allen's face at the time of the incident differs from his driver's license photo. But he doesn't waver about the ID. At all.
Sarah: I don't see it that way. I think he was being influenced somewhat by Det. LeGros's eagerness for a firm ID. (I don't recall whether Mageau was this definitive in real life.)
What the film seems to want us to see in that moment is how badly the investigators, and by extension we, need a solid answer, something they can move on, whether that answer is "correct" or not. LeGros is practically vibrating.
But your argument is solid. I'm not mad at it.
Mike: We see that very differently. (I just watched it again, twice, earlier today.) LeGros seems to me very concerned that Mageau will make a false positive ID. Tells him twice before they start that just because he's showing him a bunch of photos doesn't mean the killer is necessarily one of them.
And then when Mageau points to another photo (again, just by way of comparing faces—saying "his face was fatter then" would have conveyed the same information and been less confusing), LeGros asks "are you changing your identification to this person?"
I don't see him striving to steer Mageau back, or to necessarily get an ID at all. (Which is in keeping with the book, where the cop in question says he had no expectations at all and was just doing it to be thorough, which is why it happens in a freakin' airport.)
Sarah: I don't think he's steering him either, quite, but Mageau is not unaware of his importance as the only living person who saw the guy's face and how important this makes him to the investigation.
“I’M VERY SURE THAT’S THE MAN WHO SHOT ME”
Matt: There's a quote in Graysmith's book The Zodiac that jumped out at me: "Of the 2500 Zodiac suspects, only one remains that excites the investigators' interest and my own. Bob Hall Starr, the ‘gut-feeling choice’ of most detectives. Nobody knows who Zodiac is, but based on the evidence I have seen, Starr is the best choice by far."
I think that last sentence sums up the film's approach for me. The part before the first comma is Fincher. The rest of the sentence is the film's hero, Graysmith.
Those two parts can coexist in a work of art. But I think the first part—the fact that we just don't know who the Zodiac was — takes precedence onscreen.
That's what I was left with.
Mike: By definition, then, Matt, there's no way any film about the Zodiac could be anything but ambiguous.
Matt: Not if it's being honest, no. Otherwise you end up with something like that second How-Truman-Capote-wrote-In Cold Blood movie, where Capote is having an affair with Perry Smith behind bars, or that horrible Hitchcock, where the director is hallucinating encounters with Ed Gein. And I think Zodiac is honest.
Sarah: Do we know much about the film’s investigation of various witnesses etc.? Graysmith refers to it in an interview, that Fincher had his own P.I. team trying to find Mageau, I think?
Matt: Fincher did invest a lot into sort of re-investigating the case. Supposedly he spent a year and a half in the lead-up.
Mike: I feel like they dug something up, because "at least an eight" (Mageau's answer about how sure he feels on a scale of one to 10) isn't in Graysmith’s follow-up to Zodiac, Zodiac Unmasked. I thought it was, but upon checking found that I was wrong. And I doubt they would make that up. So they talked to somebody.
I'd be curious to know if anyone asked Fincher for his opinion about whether Allen was the Zodiac, if he has one. The end of the film really makes me feel like he wound up buying into Graysmith's argument.
I just feel like there are an infinite number of ways Fincher could have ended the film on a note of uncertainty that would be more effective than "I'm very sure that's the man who shot me."
Matt: I feel like the ending says that Fincher wanted to buy it — any artist empathizing with his subject would want that! — but he stopped just short.
Sarah: Or that the movie was already nearly three hours long, and trying to explain why another suspect is a better bet is going to push the shit into Shoah territory.
Matt: A nine-hour version of Zodiac. Some people would really dig that, I bet.
Sarah: I'd watch it. Zodiacholas Zodiackleby.