If you’ve ever gotten into an argument over whether a movie is immoral, you probably understand that the question of movie morality is unmanageable. Accusing movies of amorality crates in a complicated set of assumptions about morality and how a movie should function. The whole mess inevitably melts into something too simplified to make for meaningful debate. Discussions about whether a movie is moral (or political, or racist, or misogynist) usually devolve into quibbles over artistic intent, which is a dead end way of interpreting art, one that reduces any work to the conscious machinations of one simple mortal, the director. The value of differing interpretations falls by the wayside. Better, I’ve learned, to leave the moral question at the door when you enter the cinema, that church of the unholy.
But during the second murder scene in David Fincher’s Zodiac, a picnicker’s body is hoisted half off the grass so that his torso points towards the camera as it is punctured many times over by a masked murderer. It comes across (at first) as painfully realistic, enough for it to seem unconscionable. Greater than the shock of the scene was my surprise at hearing myself wonder, “Holy Christ, is this moral?”
I have never had a thought like this during a movie. But during this scene in Zodiac, it was not just a vague notion flitting around at the back of my mind, but a fully formed question that I wanted answered. In other words, when I flinched at Fincher, I had a unique response; for this reason, the movie secured its place for me as a singular film.
But why was I reacting this way? Probably because the scene works so well: it begins with a couple having a picnic and pleasant chit-chat. It’s idyllic but distant. Cinematographer Harris Savides is a master of cold compositions, even in the warm light of this scene. He shot Gus van Sant’s young death trilogy (Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days), films that are unimaginable without Savides’ immaculate compositions, which keep a distance from their characters, leaving them to their fate. But Savides’ distance gets a little nasty when it’s coupled with the way Zodiac sneers at its doomed couple by the pond. When the woman tells her beau that a man is watching them – the man we know is about to murder them – he replies, “Well, we are very good-looking.” It’s as though the movie sentences him to death by putting the words in his mouth. His ego will be his demise. Sure enough, while the Zodiac killer orders the couple around before he attacks them, his victim is smug and condescending. When the killer straddles him, and moves his body towards the camera, giving us a privileged angle on the multiple stabbings, it’s a very deliberate, apparatus-conscious move. Savides’ distance is suddenly collapsed – I couldn’t help feel complicit in the killer’s actions because he (the killer) had just included me in them.
The invocation of complicity dovetails nicely with a scene in which two detectives retrace the murder of a cabbie, with Mark Ruffalo referring to himself in the first person as the killer and Anthony Edwards playing along. “Why do you open the passenger side door instead of reaching over the backseat?” asks Edwards. “Because I’m an idiot,” says Ruffalo. “But you’re not an idiot,” answers Edwards. It’s fitting that Ruffalo’s character doesn’t hesitate to adopt responsibility for the crime by proxy. He will develop an obsessive fascination with the murders, and the little role-play implies that his obsession is inborn, not obligatory. His very technique, at its inception, is to pretend to be the perpetrator. It’s been said that great cops are able to think like their suspects, and Ruffalo’s character takes this literally. Ruffalo’s detective plays the role of the killer with pleasure. This guy’s practically inviting the obsession that will soon cramp his personal life for the coming decade. Zodiac, for the rest of its three-hour duration, is about this obsession as it consumes not only Ruffalo’s cop, but Robert Downey, Jr.’s investigative journalist, and Jake Gyllehall boyscount-turned-political cartoonist.
Maybe the feeling of complicity explains obsession. My unwitting involvement in the grotesque picnic murder certainly had something to do with my willingness to watch three men track the killer in the daringly uneventful two and half hours that makes up the rest of Zodiac. How much of my zeal for the investigation was motivated by guilt over my participation in the picnic murder? I was willing to wait through a long stretch to find out.
Not everyone is so willing. While I shared the palatial upstairs theater at the City Cinemas on 12th Street with only five other people at a noon screening of Zodiac, a friend of mine braved a Times Square midnight show, where he said people cheered the murders but grew restless during the police procedural of the rest of the movie, and started milling about in the aisles, talking to each other across the expanse of the theater.
While it’s unkind to ruin the movie for more patient patrons, it’s fair to be bored during Zodiac. Most of its conflict doesn’t come from suspenseful escapes or pursuits but the frustrating complications of law enforcement bureaucracy. There’s also a bit of tension between the cops and the investigative journalist competing to solve the case, but because neither of them get very far, the energy of that relationship is sapped before long. Some scenes contain so much discussion of how to get permission from whom to do what that it’s better to let the confident performances fill in for your loss of confidence that you’re sure what’s going on. The couple I saw Zodiac with kindly described it as a movie it would be nice to watch on video while you’re sick, falling in and out of sleep, surrendering yourself to the confusion, rewinding occasionally to see if you missed anything.
Of course, this says nothing about why the multitudes at the AMC 25 in Times Square were applauding the murders. Thinking about that scares me. Perhaps if they had been less restless during the scenes that followed, they would have been intrigued by the way Zodiac deals with viewer involvement. It dares to test our involvement and tease it along during a brutal opening so that it may give way to patience. The tactic is reminiscent of History of Violence, but unlike that film, Zodiac contains no third act terror, no cathartic violence or obligatory climax. In fact, it doesn’t come to much at all, which is fine. Better it play with our involvement and let us wonder about it than tie it up too neatly. And, unlike this viewer, Zodiac never tries to moralize. Seems it was smart enough to leave that kind of thing at the door.