Saturday, March 03, 2007


What would you do if you knew who a serial killer was, but the circumstantial evidence, however strong, was not enough to bring that person to justice? What if you were dealing with a case that had gone cold some time ago, with police exhausting all their leads and options? What if only you were obsessed and persistent enough to pursue this to the end? What if you would have to lose your marriage in order to bring this person to justice? What if your obsession doesn’t find resolution?

Such is the very remarkable story of Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for a San Francisco newspaper beginning in the late 60s who would not let this matter drop and ended up writing two best selling books on the Zodiac killer. Jake Gylenhaal does a compelling job of portraying this truly obsessed man’s quest for the truth of this matter even after the police had long since given up hope.

The story begins in 1968 when there is a grisly double murder in Vallejo California, and carries on with numerous killings in San Francisco and elsewhere. The killer sends coded messages to the San Francisco Chronicle which Robert is able to decode. We are regaled with Marvin Beli the famous lawyer who goes on TV to try to talk the killer into giving himself up-- all to no avail. But an important clue is given one day when the killer calls Beli. A clue missed by the police is only much later picked up by Robert. In painfully slow fashion the evidence mounts and points in a particular direction.

If your preference is for taut thrillers, this one will seem different. The movie runs some 2 hours and 40 minutes, but every minute is worth it as David Fincher does a masterful job of letting the story slowly unfold in the same way the evidence slowly was pieced together. Some crimes cannot be solved over night, indeed cannot be solved for years and even decades. Should we care? Well of course we should because injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, and as John Donne said “any man’s death diminishes me, for I am a part of mankind. Therefore, do not seek to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Well it kept tolling in the head of Graysmith and eventually it took its toll as he lost his job, and his marriage as well. You have to wonder if he felt called and compelled to be the relentless blood hound even long after the trail went cold.

This film is perfectly shot and those of us who lived through the late 60s and remember this story as part of the mysteries of growing up will find the music, the cars, the setting, the attitudes so familiar. Fincher gets it right. This movie does not resort to gimmicks, CG, or any of the other normal staples of 21rst century movie making. It is old school and all the more perfect for it, as if it had been shot during the period it recounts. Like Hitchcock thrillers there is one suspended resolution after another, and there are only momentary glimpses of the killing in this movie, near its beginning. The story is not driven by showing violence, unlike too many modern movies. Indeed, this is not a horror movie at all even though it is about a horrible series of crimes—it’s a crime investigation movie of the old sort with Graysmith as Sam Spade, private (and unpaid) detective.

I will not spoil this movie for you, but will tell you I found it compelling and fascinating. There are moments of high drama and tension in the plot, but this movie shows how a dialogue driven movie can be extremely interesting as we walk with Robert down the road of finding the killer and putting all the pieces together.

This is the first really excellent secular movie of 2007, with an excellent supporting cast including Robert Downey Jr. who is prominent early in the movie, but then fades from the focus of the plot when the story moves on beyond him. I honestly wish there were more movies like this which compel you to think and reason, and compare evidence. It’s a movie which sharpens the audience’s critical thinking and ability to follow evidence. And yes, there is even comic relief from time to time in this movie. It is not all dark and dank and dangerous. If you love reading good mystery novels, as I do --- this is the movie for you.


Anonymous said...

It's a funny thing, perseverance. People (myself included) love stories about people who just didn't give up, even though all the odds were against them. At the same time, there are clearly cases where it IS wise to give up and give in. Problem is, how do you know if/when that time comes? Also, you could just be plain wrong. And how can you know that? I'm reminded of the story of Jim Garrison, idolized by Oliver Stone in his movie JFK. He clearly persevered in his quest to prove his conspiracy theories, but most people still think he was paranoid and tampered with the evidence. What is one to believe in cases like this?

Ben Witherington said...

Well in this case Graysmith found proof positive, even though the case was not legally solved. In a sense it is a portrait of God, who is relentless. But I take your point. As Kenny Rogers said "You gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know how to lose....."

Matthew D. Montonini said...

My brother and I just went and saw the movie tonight. I concur; it was excellent.
I thought the biggest strength of the movie was its' ability to make the audience feel the frustration and angst that Graysmith and others who worked the Zodiac case must have felt.

Frank Walton said...

I loved this movie! It's unlike the other Fincher films I've seen. Surprisingly, this movie was very cerebral. Although the first hour was the only hour filled with some violence, I still left the theater with a chill.

Anyway... Brother, does Fincher like his movies looking dark... literally! There were more shadows in this movie than a haunted house!


Anonymous said...

I hate to tread over ground already covered, but...

Have you been paying attention to what James Tabor is writing on his blog? Rather than presenting new evidence and arguments, he is resorting to ad hominems against you and all the other evangelical scholars who are not engaged in objective evaluation of the evidence but rather apologetic refutation. Maybe he doesn't realize that good apologetics requires just such objective evaluation.

And he continues to recite his mantra of "Ho veltistos iatros chronos", insisting that as more time goes by more people will come around to his point of view. But unless there is new, clinching evidence that has not been presented on the official websites or Tabor's blog, what could time have to do with anything? And remember, the 'evidence' associated with this tomb is nothing new. There has already been quite a bit of time to examine this evidence. The new stuff basically consists of 1) a statistical calculation which more and more people (over time!) are saying is flawed, 2) an identification of Mariamenou e Mara with Mary Magdalene, which both Richard Bauckham and Mark Goodacre have soundly refuted, 4) DNA tests which even the filmmakers have to agree proves nothing either way and 5) patina tests which argue that the James ossuary may have come from Talpiot, which ignores the fact that the recorded dimensions are not equal and the missing 10th ossuary was plain. So what will time do to this sorry state of affairs? Cause the James ossuary to magically warp until its dimensions fit that of the missing tenth ossuary? Cause the letters in our earliest records of Mary Magdalene to suddenly read Mariamenon?

Brethren, these things ought not so to be.

Nance said...

I honestly wish there were more movies like this which compel you to think and reason, and compare evidence. It’s a movie which sharpens the audience’s critical thinking and ability to follow evidence.
This is the same feeling I had after first reading Father Brown; it's what's made me love Chesterton and a good mystery story ever since.
The film sounds really good, I may have to check it out.

seethroughfaith said...

sounds good :)

Steve Heyduck said...

At my daughter's request, we saw "Black Snake Moan" over the weekend. It was much better than I thought it would be; I look forward to reading your review here

David Drury said...

Just went to see this last night with three other pastors here in West Michigan. We all enjoyed it too... a good "makes you think" movie.

The conflicted portrayal of the press/cops/murderer triangle was my favorite theme.