Zodiac, 157 mins, rated MA 15+,
opening in cinemas, and
Infamous, 118 mins,
rated M, opening at Dendy Opera Quays,
both on 17 May 2007.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This review appeared in the May 2007 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal)
Here’s a film that should appeal to most lawyers: it’s about detail -
the frustrating, sometimes mind-numbing detail of police procedure.
Zodiac is based on two Robert
Graysmith books (Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked) about a real life
serial killer who terrorized California in the 1960s and 70s. The
screenplay is by relative newcomer James Vanderbilt, who has written
something that is tightly-constructed, precise about process, and yet
sprawling in scope, ranging over 2 decades and many suspects.
This story has already inspired several films. For instance, there’s a
scene in Zodiac when the
police go to a special screening of Dirty
Harry (Siegel, 1971), in which a serial-killing sniper called
“Scorpio” is terrorising the people of San Francisco.
The director is David Fincher, who has already conquered the serial
killer genre with his film Se7en
(1995), in which the killer uses the seven deadly sins as his theme.
Fincher also directed Fight Club
(1999), a film I specifically dislike, but which many people consider a
Until now, I would have classed Fincher as a patchy director, so it is
a pleasant surprise that this film is absolutely gripping, technically
proficient, and intelligent. It is also long, at over 2 1/2 hours, but
anyone who is used to concentrating will have no problem with it. And
even if you miss some of the detail, the film covers so much ground
that you will not feel the lack.
Zodiac is almost an antidote
to the grim Se7en, in which
we were forced to endure murder after murder until the horrifying
finale. Here the murders (frightening and realistic as they are) are
over in the first third. This leaves us the rest of the movie to
concentrate on what is required to track down and charge a killer, with
all the obstacles and complications – professional and personal – that
entails. The film’s tagline is “There's more than one way to lose your
life to a killer”. By the end of the film, the lives and careers of the
detectives and newspaper people have been changed forever, each
becoming obsessed with, and worn down by, the case.
So this film is more than just a crime story. The criminal is a
publicity-seeker. Zodiac taunts the San Francisco police with letters
and cryptic messages, presenting 3 newspapers with an ethical dilemma:
should they agree to his demands and publish his writings on their
The film features 3 main stars, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr and
Mark Ruffalo (The New York Times described them as “a trio of
beauties”). Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist with the
San Francisco Chronicle. He’s green and eager, in contrast to crime
reporter Paul Avery, played by Downey as a strutting peacock of a man.
Glib and talented and fuelled by alcohol and cocaine, he bewitches
Graysmith and antagonizes the police, eventually becoming too close to
the case and descending rapidly into debauched seclusion and illness.
It’s an electrifying performance by Downey.
Ruffalo (In the Cut, Campion,
2003, You Can Count on Me,
Lonergan, 2000) has one of his juiciest roles as Detective Dave Toschi,
the real-life San Francisco detective who inspired the characters
portrayed in Bullitt (Yates,
1968), Dirty Harry, and TV’s The Streets of San Francisco.
Toschi’s special fast-draw holster was the model for Steve McQueen’s in
Bullitt. But Ruffalo’s cop is
much more down-to-earth than the other fictionalised versions. He’s
working to put together a case, not just to gun down a killer. We see
in him the frustration of trying to a transform a mountain of
circumstantial evidence into something concrete enough to justify a
search warrant. He knows who the killer is, he just can’t prove it. We
see the toll that takes as the process is dragged out over many years
and several jurisdictions.
The film’s music score is by the impeccably-credentialed David Shire (The Conversation, Coppola, 1974, All the President’s Men, Pakula,
1976). He blends original composition with carefully-deployed pop from
the period. Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man
will never sound the same again.
Another fascinating aspect of Zodiac
shows us how far we’ve come in the world of technology and
communication since the 60s and 70s. Then, police detectives often
didn’t even have fax machines. Files were all hard copy, and difficult
to share. Details were often lost, forgotten, or deliberately not
shared in the course of protecting one’s own turf. It’s a wonder any
crimes were solved at all.
Around a decade before Zodiac’s
first murders took place, and half a continent away, a murder case was
solved – that of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas. That story was
told recently in Capote
(Bennett Miller, 2005) with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. It has
retold in this year’s Infamous,
starring Britain’s Toby Jones as Capote. His seems a truer Truman
because, being relatively unknown, Jones brings no baggage with him. He
can simply be Capote.
Like Zodiac, Infamous looks at the problems of
the detective solving a crime, and the personal toll it takes. At one
point Truman exclaims: “But I don’t care whether the crime is solved or
not!”. “I do,” replies Detective Alvin Dewey, “The Clutters went to our
Infamous shares other concerns
with Zodiac. It examines the
ethics of the writer about crime. Capote sees the criminals he’s
writing about not as people, but as characters in his novel. But his
friend Nelle Harper Lee is troubled by this. She tells him: “You
shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing: the truth is enough”.
Both Zodiac and Infamous are thoughtful and
meticulous films about crime, police work, and punishment: a rare
double treat for lawyers.