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The Unknown Unknowns: Just How “Ambiguous” is David Fincher’s ZODIAC?

Press Play By Sarah D. Bunting, Michael D'Angelo, and Matt Zoller Seitz | Press Play January 28, 2013 at 1:35AM

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.
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“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.

Zodiac 3

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.

This article is related to: Sarah D. Bunting, Michael D'Angelo, Matt Zoller Seitz, David Fincher


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