I’ve never owned a games console. Never. Not a Game Boy, MegaDrive, N64, Playstation or any of those other machines I loved when I went over my friends’ houses. I know what would happen. I know how obsessed I would become. I know how much time in my life I’ve wasted on the game that Windows calls Solitaire and the rest of the world calls Patience.
I don’t think that it has been the biggest waste of time I’ve spent in front of a computer. That would be the hours I’ve spent reading about serial killers on Wikipedia. One harmless Google search leads to whole days drifting by, an almost impossible number of tabs open on screen as I click and click and click, and a dark sensation at the back of my mind. Down the rabbit hole of psychopathy. There are truly terrible and also fascinating things in the world.
Zodiac is that instinct taken to an extreme. It’s about how the darkest recesses of human nature are so utterly fascinating. The impulse to follow these recesses means we can dedicate our lives to identifying a mystery serial killer… or watch a film that’s nearly three hours long. It’s a fairly reductive statement to note that Fincher equates the Zodiac investigation with filmmaking, such is the dedication and isolated perseverance required to make a film of individual statement within the studio system, but movie making never has to convince you. Movies are not polemic, they’re suggestions, and very little relies on their success beyond immediate employment for a few fairly well compensated stars.
The last sentence uses about as broad a brushstroke as I am prepared to use (and I am well aware that my privilege allows me to use very broad brushstrokes). But true crime has always used very broad brushes in the movies. A few clicks on Wikipedia, and you realise what evidence hasn’t been presented, and what narrative jumps were made.
It’s the way in which we all edit our own histories – rewriting the bad bits, skipping the boring parts, simplifying the motivations of everyone else. Memory exists as an internal Avid machine. Serial killers are this control we play over our own lives taken to an extreme degree. The fact that the Zodiac is still unknown ensures that the snips and cuts are more demanding. They also allow for an obsessive search for an identity, one that neglects a wife and child, to be presented as heroic. Profoundly, his heroism is presented as non-conventional masculinity. He is isolated, denigrated by his co-workers, demeaned by the blandly conformative police force, and he draws for a living. In the same way that women have conducted huge amounts of manual exercise in human labour, from farming to sweatshops, and yet it still be presented as a masculine pursuit, drawing is seen as a feminine trait.
Harry Callahan, the most conventionally masculine cinema icon, got to shoot his Zodiac killer in the face. Graysmith can’t even speak to his in a shop. Seeing the two films (the other being Don Seigel’s 1971 Dirty Harry) you begin to feel that Callahan is an absent-minded doodle that Graysmith drew whilst fantasising about confronting the killer he was after. In the movie’s most telling moment, Graysmith has no issue with telling someone that he has only smoked once in high school – he identifies as an outsider in the masculine world he is moving in – an outsider status that also applies to the suspects he investigate.
Fincher explicitly links suspected serial killers (and if they’re not, they’re seriously creepy individuals) to movie buffs. Despite his prestigious status in the industry, Fincher is a true misanthrope. His films demonstrate a singularly depressing picture of humanity, where darkness and selfishness and greed are at the fringes of every interaction. Coming out of a decade that sought to confront darkness with irony (and has ended up losing spectacularly) Zodiac represents an indulgence of obsessive dedication as a not-very convincing alternative to murder. Humanity’s every ideology appears to be a denial of our own enormous capability for destruction – as if progress and hope somehow represent an alternative to our mutually assured destruction. Christianity, the obsessive religion of America – and a fairly contemptible enslavement ideology in and of itself – encounters some of this darkness in its concept of sin, but chickens out when it presents a saviour. There is no saviour. The horror of 2016 only seemed to shock those people who believed in any goodness in our nature. To those who had made their peace with the fact that people are garbage, the world just seemed transparent.
Fincher has been fictionalising this world for his whole career. Fascinatingly, he never shies away from turning his despicable eye back on himself. By presenting movie buffs as weirdos, he hates the only people who ascribe status to his output. It’s a bitter humanity within his films, and one that we can only hope to survive by communication. The failure of capturing the Zodiac killer comes largely from the failure (based on invented legal technicalities) of law enforcement agencies to talk and share evidence and question suspects. The obsessiveness of Graysmith seeks to navigate these partisan waters, but often fails. We often have good ideas… until we express them and then the ignorance and apathy and intolerance of others shrinks us into cowardice.
Zodiac is somewhat of an apotheosis because his not only sums up Fincher’s misanthropy, but seeks to resolve it. Unfortunately, the resolution is agnosticism. Despite the point of view shots, there is no serious resolution or identification of the dark heart of our society. There are explicitly no easy answers in the narrative. No stories of killing animals for fun during childhood. The murders are schizophrenic in approach. They encompass taunting phone calls (‘gooood-bye’) and impenetrable codes. Killing lovers and later a taxi driver. Murders in different states. The film removes itself from the easy narrative ascribed to those films where the killer is caught. It’s a deliberately open narrative. We could identify every impulse and motivation for murder in society, and seek to contain them, and fail utterly. Murder would still exist. It is undeniable. It is a mirror in which we see ourselves for the way we truly are and not the illusion we have created for ourselves. We are ambiguous and selfish and capable of great cruelty. Writing letters may be our only chance of survival…