3 April 2007 | classicalsteve
The Stranger Urban Americans Fear: A Killer Playing the Most Dangerous Game
The era in which Zodiac takes place bridges two eras in urban America. The Zodiac appeared on the tail end of a crime-spree that rampaged across the US in the late 1960's. His settling in the SF Bay Area may be one of a number of social phenomenons that pushed America's view of itself out of an innocent 1950's sensibility and into a harder and darker view that became more prevalent starting in the 1970's and into the 1980's. People, even in urban areas, used to be far more trusting of one another, friendly, and civil. Many of the events of the 1960's gave urban Americans a much more cynical and cautious attitude toward people they didn't know. Don't trust or talk to strangers. Better to sacrifice helpfulness than to wind up dead. People are out to take advantage. At least in urban areas nowadays, it seems, people are much less willing to take the risk to meeting someone they don't know, largely out of fear.
The film Zodiac chronicles the strange unknowable and faceless figure that emerged as a serial killer in Northern California in the late 1960's and early 1970's. He sent letters to the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers, outlining his last and future kills, and he revealed he was inspired by the 1930's cult classic "The Most Dangerous Game". The point of view is largely from the side of the press with a character from SF Homicide that is also tracking the case. One character, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an SF Chronicle cartoonist who at first takes an amateur's interest in the case, often bothering fellow beat journalist Paul Avery, played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr. Only later does the cartoonist engage on his own investigation to reveal the identity of the Zodiac. When Graysmith begins receiving anonymous phone calls with nothing but heavy breathing, you can't help but wonder if he's also playing the same game, and if he may also become one of the hunted.
One of the most brilliant aspects of the film is its pacing. It never lets up and the suspense is always there, which becomes unsettling when you realize that these events actually took place instead of purely in the imagination of a modern suspense novelist. There is an eeriness which pervades the entire film. A car stopping unexpectedly in a nearly-deserted area is more frightening than most scenes in your average low-budget slasher flicks.
I do have a couple of shortcomings to this film. There are a couple of scenes where the cruelty and brutality of the violence is such that not all viewers will be able to handle this movie. I found I did have to turn away at a couple of scenes. Also, there are a couple of moments when the state of the investigation is not made clear. However, even given these shortcoming, Zodiac is a brilliant movie that tackles a subject-matter that probably could not have been brought to the screen during the period it depicts.
The Zodiac came to personify one of the constant fears of living in urban America: a faceless, emotionless killer that comes out of the shadows of a dark alley to commit heinous violence. In the end, we fear strangers because of this, but we end up sacrificing love. It is an ironic aspect of human nature that people can do to strangers what would be almost unthinkable to do to people that we know. In addition to the poor innocent people that were brutally murdered, the Zodiac committed another crime against humanity. He compromised our sense of trust, civility, and in many ways, love for our fellow human beings even when we might not know them.