Thursday, March 21, 2013

David Fincher's Zodiac and Worldview

For several years, the Blu-ray edition of David Fincher’s Zodiac was either out of print or sold online at greatly inflated prices. Finally, the 2-disc director’s cut is now available on Blu-ray at a great price. I recently bought a copy and revisited it over the weekend.  


Many may disagree, but I’ll defend Zodiac as not only a great police procedural, but also one of the great films of the last 10 years, one that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. Fincher is a gifted director who’s delivered some excellent movies, but I can’t think of any other film from his catalog that’s this well-crafted. The pacing, performances, tone, cinematography, period details, use of music, and use of source material are all right on target. The film is nearly three hours long, but when you’re watching it, it feels like you’re running a sprint, not a marathon. There’s so much to say about Zodiac - some of which I’ve said before - but I want to concentrate on the spiritual aspect of it from a Christian worldview. (“The spiritual aspect of a serial killer movie? Are you kidding me?” No.)  

The Zodiac killer is a fascinating character. Yes, he was sadistic, evil and depraved, but also ingenious and fascinating in the way he worked and deceived everyone seeking to capture him. It’s not really such a stretch to believe that such evil people are out there; unfortunately we see it far too often. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” We certainly see that in Zodiac. To make matters worse, Zodiac kills with no apparent remorse, taunting the victims’ families, the police and the public. In one of his famous letters to the newspapers, he boasts, “I am now in control of all things.” Clearly Zodiac sees himself as sovereign, putting himself, as it were, in the place of God.  

We’re all imperfect, fallen creatures, but most of us have at least some consciousness of justice, a sense of right and wrong that’s innate. (Call it common grace, if you will.) We see someone like Zodiac and we long to see him caught and punished, not just as an assurance for our own personal safety (although that’s certainly part of it), but from a sense of justice. Regardless of what we believe, we know that what he’s doing is wrong and must be stopped. 

But we see how a good intention - catching a dangerous criminal - can become an obsession just as harmful to us - maybe even more harmful, long-term - than the criminal himself. Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) reluctantly realizes this before his obsession to find Zodiac destroys his marriage. Toschi’s partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) is wise enough to transfer to another department. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) trades obsession for paranoia, thinking that it’s only a matter of time before Zodiac finds him. Yet Fincher shows us that it’s the life of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) - cartoonist for the Chronicle - that suffers the most.   

Graysmith is a cartoonist, for crying out loud, someone with no horse in this race, other than an obsession to find the killer, and certainly no skills beyond an insatiable desire to uncover the truth. Gyllenhaal gives a wonderful (and largely ignored) performance as we watch him slowly disintegrate over the course of the film until he’s left with a life filled with not much more than scrapbooks and boxes of Zodiac files and drawings. 

Two scenes stand out for me with Graysmith as a focal point: the first, in which Graysmith visits the home of a man who supposedly knew one of the Zodiac suspects. Here we see Graysmith come to the realization that he may have discovered more than he bargained for, that his obsession - and his life - may truly be at an end. There’s a sense that there are things in this world that we shouldn’t mess around with, especially if we’re not prepared professionally, mentally, or spiritually to handle them. This is more than just a tense moment for Graysmith. It’s the realization - perhaps for the first time - that his life could be over in a matter of seconds and what does he have to show for it? Even if he does uncover the truth, where has it gotten him? 

Second, a brief scene near the end of the film shows Graysmith in a hardware store, staring at Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen face to face. It’s a moment nearly three hours in coming, but in Graysmith’s time, it’s measured in years, a lost marriage, fractured relationships with his children and a remaining shell of a life. But here he sees the source (or what he thinks is the source) of his obsession, just a few feet in front of him. No words are necessary. Fincher knows that the look Graysmith gives Allen, and Allen’s facial response, are all we need. 

We have an innate need to right things that we know are wrong. That’s one of the reasons we’re outraged when we see criminals getting away with crimes, uncaring politicians clearly out-of-touch with the people they serve, and a multitude of other abuses too numerous to list here. As with the Zodiac killer, a large part of our fear is that such criminals will never be caught and/or punished for their crimes. It’s a fear that not only are we not in control, but no one is. 

At the end of Zodiac, one of the killer’s surviving victims, years after the attack, looks at a series of photographs and points to a shot of Arthur Leigh Allen. He stares at it and taps it with his finger, saying, “That’s him.” It’s taken nearly three hours of movie time and many, many years, but someone has finally identified Zodiac. In a way, it’s a very small step, but its significance is huge.  

It would be easy to walk away from Zodiac thinking, “What’s the use? The guy was never convicted. If it was Arthur Leigh Allen, he died without being convicted. If it wasn’t, then Zodiac is probably still out there. Any way you look at it, he got away with it.” 

It often seems that way. But there are two ways to look at this, depending on your worldview: In a random universe where there are no absolute standards, why would we care about truth and justice? What do those terms even mean in a chance universe? And if that’s the case, why does it bother us when we see horrific murders like those committed by Zodiac? If there’s no meaning to life, why should we care? 

On the other hand, if we believe that everything happens for a purpose, there must be some reason for the existence of criminals like Zodiac. That doesn’t mean there’s not a God in control, but that there’s a reason for everything that happens. We may not understand or know that reason, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. If we believe that God created this world as something good and that man fell, then things are not as they should be. We hear people all the time asking in the midst of natural disasters, horrific crimes, etc., “Where was God in this?” We can either believe that He wasn’t/isn’t there (doesn’t care/doesn’t exist) or that He’s trying to show us something: that the world is not as it should be. It needs redemption. Only then will things make sense. Only then will justice be done. 

Depending on your worldview, Zodiac either plunges you further into the depths of despair or encourages you that one day, all things will be made right again. Like all great films, Zodiac provides a starting point for great conversations of worldview and things that matter. 

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