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

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by Sarah D. Bunting, Michael D'Angelo, and Matt Zoller Seitz
January 28, 2013 1:35 AM
17 Comments
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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.

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17 Comments

  • 3hares | January 29, 2013 3:15 PMReply

    Sorry, I know this is a tangent--I enjoyed the conversation. But I'm completely distracted by the Lizzie Borden a technically open case where everyone knows who did it but no charges were filed?

  • Richard | January 29, 2013 3:00 AMReply

    This is such a funny debate. I'm now going to show you what it says in the screenplay. This should leave the ambiguity at the door.

    INT ACE HARDWARE - EVENING

    Graysmith walks through the aisles. Looking for someone. Finally spots him. A HEAVY BALD CLERK. Stocking merchandise. Graysmith walks up to him. The clerk flashes a smile.

    The clerk's nameplate reads "Bob". He wears a "Z" ring on his finger. A Zodiac watch on his wrist.

    Meet ROBERT HALL STARR.

    They stand three feet away. Graysmith stares at him. looking him in the eye. Searching...

    Starr's smile fades. Realizing why Graysmith's there. What he's thinking. He frowns. His face transforms. And at once we can see how terrifying this man really could be.

    They hold each other's gaze for what seems like forever...

    And Starr finally looks away.

    Graysmith blinks. Once. Getting what he came here for.

    Knowing for sure.

    Graysmith turns and walks out of the store

    --

    I would say Fincher's interpretation of how that is written is completely on point. I read that and the scene flashed in my mind. Bear in mind, this is how the draft of the script ends. Before this there's a scene where Graysmith lays out his argument the best he can, compiled from all the evidence that is there. And it's convincing. Basically the point of this scene is he would never be able to prove it with evidence, but his gut feeling told him he was always right and that was as good as it was going to get.

  • Garibaldi | January 29, 2013 12:06 PM

    Only someone who was cinematically illiterate would use excerpts from a screenplay draft as evidence of a film's message while ignoring what's on screen. A film is what happens within the frame, not a piece of paper.

  • Tony Gault | January 28, 2013 8:48 PMReply

    I've always loved ZODIAC and its "chasing its own tail" narrative. Fincher, I believe, pays homage to another similar film, THE SHINING (and its legions of film analysis conspiracy theorists) in a scene where Graysmith is on the phone and his wife is hounding him in the background.

    At about 1 hour 58 minutes, we see a can of Calumet baking powder in the background (a key element in another SF Chronicle reporter Bill Blakemore's analysis of THE SHINING that claims Kubrick was making a film about Native American annihilation. Then we hear Graysmith's wife say in the background, "Your toast is burning." Is this a reference to THE SHINING's chef, Halloran who says, “When something happens it can leave a trace of itself behind — say like if someone burns toast.”

    Talk about chasing my tail....

  • Tony Gault | January 28, 2013 8:47 PMReply

    I've always loved ZODIAC and its "chasing its own tail" narrative. Fincher, I believe, pays homage to another similar film, THE SHINING (and its legions of film analysis conspiracy theorists) in a scene where Graysmith is on the phone and his wife is hounding him in the background.

    At about 1 hour 58 minutes, we see a can of Calumet baking powder in the background (a key element in another SF Chronicle reporter Bill Blakemore's analysis of THE SHINING that claims Kubrick was making a film about Native American annihilation. Then we hear Graysmith's wife say in the background, "Your toast is burning." Is this a reference to THE SHINING's chef, Halloran who says, “When something happens it can leave a trace of itself behind — say like if someone burns toast.”

    Talk about chasing my tail....

  • Aaron Aradillas | January 28, 2013 8:42 PMReply

    To put it bluntly: Mr. D'Angelo is so convincd there is no ambiguity in ZODIAC that he refuses to acknowledge there is long after multiple viewers have provided enough examples to the contrary.

  • Kris Pigna | January 28, 2013 7:48 PMReply

    Boy, not sure where to start. But I love this movie, so let me jump in here...

    "I see Graysmith becoming increasingly convinced that he knows who did it, and increasingly frustrated that he can't definitively prove it."

    I think that gets exactly at the crux of it. I see what Mike is saying about how "Graysmith lays out all the evidence against Allen, a victim IDs Allen, etc.," and that he feels there's not enough in the movie undermining these things to justify it's "ambiguous" ending. But I think, with respect, he might be underestimating what it is that the characters -- or at least Graysmith -- are seeking. For Graysmith in particular, I don't think it's enough to just make a good "closing argument." He needs to know beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    And I think there is, in fact, enough of a counter-argument made. In the scene Mike cites where Graysmith lays out his argument to Toschi at the diner, Toschi DOES seem fairly convinced, sure, but he still brings up the handwriting experts ruling out Allen, and points out that most of what Graysmith is basing his case on is circumstantial evidence. And when Graysmith comes just a hair too close to suggesting that shouldn't matter, Toschi (as Aaron noted) chastises him: "Easy, Dirty Harry" -- recalling their meeting during a screening of the film. And I think that's the key to it all. Even if Graysmith constructed an argument that seems heavily convincing, the fact that it was never enough to get a conviction (let alone an arrest) will always leave a shard of doubt.

    As for the final scene, I loved it, but then I also saw it not as a final piece of evidence nailing Allen, but as a final example of just how futile the obsession had become by that point. Yes, Mageau's last words are "I'm very sure that's the man who shot me," but JUST BEFORE that, on a scale of 1-10, he's only able to peg his certainty at "at least an eight," which never struck me as particularly convincing. But even more concerning, he's ID-ing a man over 20 YEARS after the incident -- which, again, would never hold up in court.

    But ultimately, I think that discussing whether the movie is "ambiguous," insofar as whether it makes a strong enough case for identifying the Zodiac killer, is in a certain sense the wrong discussion. Whether or not the movie makes the case for a suspect is not, to me, what makes the movie "ambiguous" or "unambiguous." I think it's ABOUT ambiguity, and is therefore unambiguously about ambiguity...if that makes sense? Or in other words, it's very plainly about what it's about, but it just so happens to be about ambiguity -- about the frustration of seeking airtight closure that never comes. That's why the ending, and the movie as a whole, is so satisfying for me -- it denies us conventional satisfaction as far as who the Zodiac was, but in doing so it commits to its true subject, which is in fact that very denial of conventional satisfaction.

    And on one final, admittedly self-serving note, I found the comparison to Zero Dark Thirty fascinating since I -- cough cough, ahem -- recently made a similar comparison myself. :) http://semicoherentmusings.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/the-many-interpretations-of-zero-dark-thirty/

  • Aaron Aradillas | January 28, 2013 6:45 PMReply

    Wait, Tony Soprano isn't dead? I thought he got shot by the guy in the Members Only jacket. Am I gonna have to re-think the finale?

  • Steven M | January 28, 2013 5:25 PMReply

    Mike is correct in that Fincher certainly believes that ALA was the Zodiac killer. There is no other logical reading of this film and just as Graysmith says "just because you can't prove it doesn't mean it's not true." Matt is engaging in the worst kind of psuedo-intellectualism here and ignoring the text (Isn't Matt the same guy who thinks Tony Soprano is still alive?). The ambigious part of the film is really about the nature of obsession (which is what the film is really about) and frusturation of never being 100% certain about anything.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | January 28, 2013 6:53 PM

    Also, please read Sarah's comment on page 1 again: "I think you have three belief systems here: what the viewer believes; what Graysmith believes; and what the film believes."

    The viewer believes whatever he wants to believe. Graysmith believes he knows who did it. The film is very careful not to completely endorse his point-of-view, which makes the film tantalizingly incomplete -- thus the different readings offered by viewers since it came out, and in this thread.

    There is no disagreement among the three of us about what Graysmith believes, because the film makes it quite clear.

    We're talking about the film itself -- the text. The text is not as clear as you make it out to be.

    If the *film* were as clear about what *the film* believes as you claim it is, there would not be such a continuing divergence of opinion on whether the film is opened or closed, or who the film thinks did it. As we alluded to in this discussion, and as others have pointed out in comments and on other sites, the film seems to contradict itself and muddy things in certain places. I suspect Fincher wants to believe that whatever Graysmith says is true because Graysmith is his protagonist, and there will inevitably be some identification there, as there usually is between filmmakers and their heroes. But he stops short of totally endorsing him. We get to the 99-yard line but don't cross over. And no act of wishful thinking on the part of viewers will force the film to cross over. It just doesn't do that. Call it hedging its bets -- maybe that's an accurate description -- but it does not cross over.

    Lastly, "Just because you can't prove it doesn't mean it's not true" is not, to put it mildly, a very strong reed to hang anything on. The movie doesn't give that sentiment a big hug. As well it shouldn't.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | January 28, 2013 6:35 PM

    @Steven M: "(Isn't Matt the same guy who thinks Tony Soprano is still alive?)"

    Nice try, but no. Matt is the guy who thinks David Chase ended The Sopranos with a cut to black that denied us absolute certainty of Tony's fate.

  • Garibaldi | January 28, 2013 3:49 PMReply

    This D'Angelo guy just doesn't get it. His side of the conversation is almost as tone-deaf as his Zero Dark Thirty piece.

    The whole point, the whole communicated message of the film is that despite all the mountains of circumstantial evidence that point to ALA being the Zodiac Killer, despite everything that Graysmith and Toschi find that convinces them that Allen did it, there will never be enough to prove it was him.

    In the ending -- I can't even believe how far off the mark D'Angelo is on this one -- after the moment that could be the single most convincing piece of evidence (the only witness identification of Z), even after a moment of "certainty", Fincher immediately undercuts that moment by telling us that the DNA didn't match ALA!

    The sequence basically plays out like this:

    Mageau: "I am very certain that's the man who shot me."

    Text, paraphrased, obviously: DNA TELLS US THAT ALLEN PROBABLY ISN'T THE MAN WHO SHOT HIM.

    I'm not trying to attack you, Mr. D'Angelo, but you've missed the point so much on this one, I had to say something.

  • Aaron Aradillas | January 28, 2013 2:55 PMReply

    The use of the different actors to play Zodiac is an echo of Hitchcock's PSYCHO. Hitch had different people play "Mother," but not the actual actor who was "Mother." Fincher knew if he had one actor play Zodiac that would give audiences an excuse that one particular person was the killer. (If memory serves, we don't see the "Zodiac" who picks up Ione Skye on the highway. On the commentary Fincher states he never believed this incidewnt to be part of the Zodiac mythology. Explains why we never "see" this one.)

    One of the key lines in the movie is when Graysmith tells Toschi "Just becuse you can't prove it doens't mean it isn't true." Toschi replies with the one clunker in the script: "Easy Dirty Harry." That's the difference between Fincher's movie and most other procedurals. Dirty Harry ALWAYS knew whodunit. ZODIAC is about being sure but not 100% certain.

    People who buy into Graysmith's theory without thinking are clearly not paying attention to Fincher's intent. I've always been bothered that no one follows up with the inclusive handwriting samples. According the Sherwood (Philip Baker Hall), the samples match except for one letter. Why?

    One separate note: Has anyone noticed that ZERO DARK THIRTY resembles ZODIAC both in structure and intent? The only difference is that we know for certain who did it. The masterstroke of ZD30 is its ending suggests, like ZODIAC, even vanquishing the boogeyman won't solve much.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | January 28, 2013 6:55 PM

    @Aaron Aradillas: "One separate note: Has anyone noticed that ZERO DARK THIRTY resembles ZODIAC both in structure and intent? The only difference is that we know for certain who did it."

    Yeah, actually! See page 3.

  • twicks | January 28, 2013 2:47 PMReply

    The film is compelling precisely because, like Graysmith, we feel the frustration of nearly everything pointing to Leigh Allen, while at the same time we lack the crucial evidence to decisively act on it.

    The police don’t have the evidence they need…and Fincher wisely deprives us of the “visual evidence” we need and are accustomed to (the sort of Scooby-Doo ending most movies give us, with flashbacks to all the murder scenes throughout the movie, only with closeups of Leigh Allen doing the shooting/stabbing).

    To me, that’s more interesting than turning Leigh Allen into a certified Dead End and concluding the film with a big, “Oh well, we’re STUMPED.”

  • Grego | January 28, 2013 12:58 PMReply

    I know this article is about whether the film is ultimately ambiguous or unambiguous, but I think something important is being lost here. The ending is perfect as it is because it shows a haunted man. The haunted man, a victim of the Zodiac, is visibly affected by his ongoing trauma. Sure, he "definitively" fingers the "correct" photo, but I think the scene is less about how certain Mageau is and more about how HAUNTED he is. Everyone in the film is haunted, and to me that is a very ambiguous feeling. The feeling I get at the end of the film is not one of certainty, but of a very haunted uncertainty. The end, which basically confirms Allen as the killer yet also says that he dies before he could be picked up and that the DNA evidence does not match, is also incredibly haunting, definitively ambiguous. Ok Mike D'Angelo?

  • Klay | January 28, 2013 9:18 AMReply

    I would have to say, undoubtedly, that the average viewer sees this film as containing a tight resolution. I've watched it with multiple people I'd consider casual film-viewers--one of which is my dad, who scoff's at any stiff of an open-ended movie (re: The Imposter: "We watched that whole damn movie, and we still don't know what happened to the damn kid!!!")--and all of them agree that the film establishes Allen as the killer. It's all in the ending, and that "sense" of resolution is there.

    But the key being that resolution is there if you want it to be. I think what these viewers wanted was a tight, "truth-centered" drama with a resolution, and, to their mind, it was delivered (expect for maybe the tight-ness). But as you've all discussed, if you're paying attention to the script, and to the way the film builds and builds upon the theme of obsession to no good end, you'll realize that the ending offers no clear resolution, and we're left with much of the same questions we began with.

    Thanks for this. I love seeing smart critics like yourselves debate a very minute detail, but one that certainly illuminates a lot of elements that make the film great. Well done.

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