Decades after Peter Lorre’s knife-toting creep Hans Beckert prowled the Berlin streets in search of little girls in Fritz Lang’s M (1931); after Robert Mitchum’s silver-tongued Harry Powell cut down all the “smooth and curly-haired things” he could get his hands on in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955); after Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates slashed through the shower curtain in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), audiences are still captivated by psychopaths and serial killers. The end of Hollywood’s censorship codes in the 1960s, as well as the move toward a grittier kind of realism in postwar cinema all over the world, opened the floodgates to increasingly graphic depictions of sex and violence on-screen, paving the way for even more demented and blood-lusty villains. As the realities of gendered violence continue to make headlines and inundate our social media channels, these cinematic tales of brutality feel all the more palpably horrifying to women spectators, because we feel them to be possible, to be potentially true.
What are the implications of spectatorship premised on our fascination with and eager consumption of violent images—images that, however fictional, brush up against an all-too-familiar darkness? What does it mean for women—typically the preferred victims—to witness these images, and to perhaps even relish them? To look back on crime and horror films that generate pretty corpses, that delight in a woman’s screams and linger on brutalized women’s bodies, is to reckon with the misogyny baked into popular culture. Enjoying such films is a kind of Gordian knot for the woman viewer, tugging uncomfortably at questions of pleasure and power without the comfort of easy answers.
In conjunction with two series currently on the Criterion Channel—Home Invasion and True Crime—we’ve gathered half a dozen women writers to wrestle with a serial-killer movie of their choice and the ways it fascinates, disturbs, thrills, or provokes them. —Beatrice Loayza
Nadine Smith on Black Christmas
Horror movies come with a lot of baggage for women, and the slasher subgenre in particular tends to abide by a formula that consists of sexual(ized) violence and voyeurism as much as it does masked killers wielding oxidized knives. Still, even in such compromised forms, stories of women who endure terror, pain, and bodily harm often resonate with women spectators, as we find catharsis in exaggerated, externalized depictions of the abuse that so many of us endure. Because their relationship to women and marginalized people in general is so often fraught, slasher movies are constantly being reread, reclaimed, and reconsidered, examined for potential nuggets of feminist insight or empowerment.
The beauty of Bob Clarke’s 1974 Black Christmas, unlike so many other unseemly genre movies of its day, is that it doesn’t need to be reinterpreted, because what it offers at face value remains so bone-chillingly accurate: a look at the all-too-real rage of men who desire to control women’s bodies. After Jess (Olivia Hussey) defies her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), by deciding to have an abortion, she and her sorority sisters are terrorized and slaughtered by an unknown killer. That Black Christmas came only a year after the Roe v. Wade ruling, and that the protections ensuring a woman’s legal right to an abortion are still a heated point of national debate, makes the film all the more potent.
Considered, alongside The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as a forerunner of a soon-to-be-mass-market subgenre, Black Christmas has a radicality and self-awareness that sets it apart. It certainly introduces many of the devices that would become central to the slasher by assuming the perspective of a sickening killer and depicting a group of young college girls jolted by a ringing telephone and preyed upon in an isolated location. But at the same time it’s surprisingly cognizant of the issues that would become endemic to the genre. The menace is not supernatural or fantastical, a psychotic Santa or killer Christmas creature—as it is in other holiday-themed horror movies, like Silent Night, Deadly Night or Krampus—but the force of misogyny exerted by multiple characters. Given the Christian notions of family and patriarchy that so heavily inform the holiday season, the backdrop of snowflakes and mistletoe only lends more resonance to a film that is ultimately about the normalization of violence against women.
Black Christmas is aware of the loaded nature of cinematic perspective, of the unease that comes from knowing you’re an object of surveillance. Later slasher movies set within sorority houses use the location to conveniently gather—that is, sexualize and brutalize—as many women’s bodies as possible for maximum audience titillation. But in Black Christmas, there’s something almost tragic about the sorority house, a place designed specifically for women that’s invaded by a man who yearns to also invade their bodies.
The opening holiday party sequence presents a dichotomy that is central to the film’s depiction of womanhood. We observe a scene of sisterhood as the girls exchange gifts, dress up, and get drunk, enjoying themselves freely in an environment seemingly sealed off from the aggression and cruelty of the outside world. But this place is not truly secure; these women—eventual victims—are being spied upon as the camera aligns with the first-person perspective of the killer. As a woman, and particularly as a trans woman, I find it difficult to exist in the world without feeling like I am constantly being observed. Even in places where I go for refuge, I worry that any sense of safety I achieve might be shattered, that any attempts to feel carefree might be weaponized against me, like the sparkling glass unicorn in the movie that’s used to pierce a girl’s body.
In this sense, Black Christmas is as much a Pakula-esque thriller as it is a horror show, obsessed as it is with communication technologies, telephones, and call-tracing. Unlike many subsequent slasher films that reduced the dynamics of voyeurism to a mere gimmick or MacGuffin, Black Christmas palpably feels like the product of an era in which so many new ways of watching and being watched were emerging. This was the age of Watergate, televised warfare, and the proliferation of home security systems and closed-circuit surveillance cameras in public spaces. More than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Conversation (1974) or an early film by Brian De Palma might be the perfect double-bill partner for Black Christmas.
Yet coexisting with the film’s evocation of perpetual unease is a strange beauty: the falling of snow, the almost Sirkian twinkling of Christmas lights, the ironic crosscutting between the stabbing of human flesh and the singing of a children’s carol. In many ways, these visual contradictions encapsulate my lived experience of womanhood and femininity: moments of fear and helplessness, punctuated by joy, grace, and light.
Nadine Smith is a writer, DJ, and cohost of the podcast Hotbox the Cinema.
Elena Gorfinkel on Eyes of Laura Mars
Memories of my first encounter with Eyes of Laura Mars are forever filtered through the screaming of a friend, her bloodcurdling shriek upon seeing the opening credits singed into my brain. This is a hoary cliché of women’s encounters with horror films, yet I can’t get the sound out of my head. Her paroxysms were occasioned by Faye Dunaway’s dramaturgical cheekbones, deep-socketed eyes, and thin brows, which suddenly go dark, like the negative of a photograph. The image is suffused by black as her irises become white wraiths, dreadful caverns, indictments of the spectator, of looking, of women looking. Dunaway’s Laura Mars, a photographer of glitzy reputation, becomes the unwitting witness of the deaths of her friends and colleagues as blurred images invade her mind and relay the physiological point of view of a mystery killer. Her eyes are a locus of premonitory hallucination and disorienting second sight. Barbra Streisand’s anthemic opening ballad, “Prisoner,” announces the film’s fixations: “I’m like a prisoner / captured by your eyes. / I’ve been taken / and I’ve been hypnotized.”
What are the conditions of such capture and hypnosis? Feminist film scholars have written extensively about the alliance of the woman’s gaze and the monster that incites her screaming, and the complex admixture of pleasure and unpleasure horror arouses in women spectators. Monstrosity is a floating signifier in this film, less a property of the killer—as in Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—than an environment premised on the capitalist industry of appearances. The Medusan transformation of Mars into a decomposed image turned inside out, an obsidian surface with gaping sockets, is one figure of monstrosity. Also monstrous is the unsettling anonymity of the murderer authoring Laura’s visions and reproducing the scenes in her art. The film invites the female spectator in through the intermingling of glamour and gore, underscoring the woman’s look as its central problem. Laura is at once a maker of images, a seer, a clairvoyant, and a victim of the very images she generates. The film chews over a question feminist thinkers were tackling at the time: Despite any authority or creative agency she seems to possess, can a woman’s look ever exist independently from the system of (often patriarchal) looking within which she is ensnared as in a spider’s web?
Eyes of Laura Mars’s nagging logic of complicity yokes the erotic spectacle of fashion images to murder. The fashion world’s jagged edges and haute extremities in patent leather stilettos click their way toward Grand Guignol. Laura makes images of women’s slick bodies splayed and frozen improbably in even less probable garments, images that resemble a cross between luxury perfume ads and Weegee’s crime-scene photographs (Laura’s photos were famously authored by Helmut Newton). Yet whether she is a “real” artist or a mere trifler remains one of the film’s glib ambivalences. One is as captivated by Laura and her arrested and strained modes of expression as by her models, and at times the difference between the photographer and her subjects is hard to distinguish. Laura swashbuckles through Midtown Manhattan with her camera, her double-slit skirt hiked up as she shoots from the hip in Columbus Circle for a fashion spread in which lingerie-clad models in minks and foxfurs catfight in front of overturned burning cars. Suddenly the visions come, disrupting Laura’s furiously demonstrative labor with the haunting of the imminently dead. As the bodies and apparitions pile up, the viewer oscillates: Are the images of murder that Laura sees manifestations of her unconscious, mirror images of her photographs’ phantasmatic projections of stylized violence? Or has her psyche been colonized by the alien presence of the killer who acts out and thus punitively reworks her art?
Eyes of Laura Mars diagnoses how photographic images circulate in a media economy built on Americans’ appetites for sensational, sexualized violence. The film’s gaucheness in having it both ways, indulging the senses in one breath and scolding the viewer the next, has its dissonant pleasures. One can easily succumb to the torrid titillations of the movie’s material style, a frottage of disco chic and Architectural Digest–worthy interior locations. Whose senses are immune from being blitzed by the gleaming mirrored surfaces; the chrome furniture, plush beige rugs, and cream sofas; the warehouse studios, tweed textures, fur coats, and rouged lips; Laura’s pallid, prim schoolmarm charm and the grimy, patinated energy of late ’70s New York that oozes from every frame? The stylized hysteria and frenzied self-reflexivity crescendos into a surgical kind of camp. Serial-killer films remind us that the criminal is as compulsively driven by the staging and mise-en-scène of the crime as he is by the act of murder itself—and Eyes of Laura Mars shares in that obsession.
By the end, “when the woman looks” (to quote scholar Linda Williams), vision refracts and finally explodes. Laura has too much of it for her own good, so it begins to corrode her from the inside. Her premonitions blind her to the killer in her midst, splitting her being into two halves: her true self and the self as perceived by the killer. But the film’s primary aesthetic force is less existential than spectacular: it’s a whirligig of sudden shocks and lush attractions. It’s true gratifications, against the grain, are ones of surface effects, sparkling baubles, Charcot-tinged performances, and tawdry thrills. When the woman looks at the horror film, she is also looking at the décor.
Elena Gorfinkel is a senior lecturer in film studies at King’s College London and the author of Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s. Her criticism appears in Sight & Sound, Art Monthly, Cinema Scope, and other publications.
Kelli Weston on Angst
Before I ever saw a horror film, it was fairy tales that first sparked my ambivalent interest in the macabre. The two forms have much in common, including but not limited to narrative tropes such as kidnapping, murder, cannibalism, necrophilia, dismemberment, torture. Both stage a fundamental confrontation between good and evil in which innocent girls run afoul of devils—a seductively uncomplicated premise for a guilty little Catholic like me. When I discovered horror cinema, particularly true crime, I found that based on a true story naturally supplanted once upon a time. Like the fairy tales of my youth, these movies are animated by one central question: What truths and thrills may safely unfold out of our wildest fears? Recall, for instance, what Little Red Riding Hood had to teach us: There are wolves about.
Unlike the diabolically cerebral criminals of most true-crime films, the psychopath in Gerald Kargl’s Angst (1983) embodies all at once the animal impulse of the wolf and innately human passions grotesquely distorted. Kargl collapses the distance between us and the killer by rooting us almost entirely in his perspective, a rare immersive experience that strips away the safe detachment built into most films of this kind. Angst complicates the classic battle between good and evil, disturbing our moral sensibilities and exposing inadequacies in how we reckon (both personally and socially) with such unhinged horror.
Erwin Leder plays a nameless convict, freshly paroled and already plotting his next kill from within his cell. After he botches his attempt to strangle a female cab driver, he flees through the woods and stumbles upon a secluded house, where he lies in wait for the owners. An unsuspecting family of three returns, and with the sweaty zeal of a rabid dog he unleashes a frenzied, chaotic massacre so brutal it got the film banned across Europe at the time of its release.
Of course, the two female characters—an elderly lady and her bespectacled blonde daughter—get the worst of it. The latter is chased into a tunnel where the killer stabs her dead and greedily slurps up her blood. The serial-killer genre flourishes largely because it retells a familiar story: the girl and the wolf, an age-old narrative wherein young white women are especially vulnerable to the monsters hidden among us. In fact, Angst seems to borrow pointedly from the fable, for the killer clumsily (and graphically) smothers the old woman before moving on to the daughter, who unsuccessfully attempts to seduce him. But here, gendered violence turned into spectacle becomes all the more chilling because Kargl and Zbigniew Rybczyński—who serves as cinematographer, editor, and cowriter—draw us into intimate, inescapable collaboration with the killer.
Rybczyński’s camera sticks close to the twitchy, lupine Leder, tracking him in overhead shots and claustrophobic close-ups to increasingly unsettling effect as he descends into blundering, feral madness. Leder’s performance is almost entirely mute, but in voice-over narration (by Robert Hunger-Bühler) the character unspools all his deranged musings, including passages lifted from the confessions of real-life serial killers. We find all the usual signs of a clinical sadist beyond redemption, or someone who never stood a chance: the childhood abuse, animal cruelty, early deviant sexual experiences, and the classic oedipal conflict with the Mother. He emerges as uncomfortably human, driven by pure carnal instinct: a desperation to quiet all the wild, core urges inside him.
Angst also has a more conventional side; the illusion of justice has an irresistible allure. Much of my own wariness of true-crime movies can be traced to the genre’s oversimplification of the forces that do actual harm in our world and its misdirection away from more broadly vulnerable classes. Angst doesn’t escape this pitfall: it begins and ends with the state; Erwin is caught after his twenty-four-hour rampage; and all the horror that came before can be reconciled, even dismissed, because as always we are offered the comfort of the balance righted. And yet, even as we feel relief at this conclusion, the horror—in all its excess, and alongside our tacit complicity—lingers.
Kelli Weston is a freelance film critic with a PhD in film and screen studies. Her work has been published in Sight & Sound, Reverse Shot, and MUBI Notebook, among other publications.
Beatrice Loayza on Landscape Suicide
On the cover of a 1985 issue of Rolling Stone we see John Travolta poised in plaid and lightly embracing a leotard-clad Jamie Lee Curtis. This hypnotizingly shiny image of beauty and sexuality is presented early on, against a black backdrop, like a piece of evidence, in James Benning’s Landscape Suicide (1986), a quasi-documentary study of two murderers. In an affectless tone, a disembodied narrator says that her twelve-year-old daughter purchased the magazine, then ripped out the pages containing a story about the killing of a teenage girl entitled “Death of a Cheerleader.” “She said she didn’t want to read this kind of article,” the narrator explains, “it only scared her.”
Benning’s film considers how the impulse to conceal, expunge, and forget trauma extends not just to individuals but to American culture at large. The proposition that we, like the frightened girl, effectively “rip out” unsavory events from our memories might seem at odds with the recent popularity of true-crime content, especially, studies show, with women. But, as Landscape Suicide demonstrates, something fundamental about our relationship to violence is obscured when horrifying realities are processed into catnip for audiences all too eager to gasp, gawk, and decry another lurid attraction in the annals of “American tragedy.” What exactly are we confronting when real violence is presented to us by the tabloids or interpreted by Hollywood horror fare in the form of phony, but profitable and alluring, images?
The film is bifurcated into two parts that each revolves around a different actor performing the transcript of a real-life killer’s court testimony. Connecting these interviews is an unseen woman narrator whose comments about the two murderers using language drawn from newspapers and magazines can be heard before and after the conversations. Occasionally, we take her perspective from the driver’s seat as she makes her way through the murderers’ emptied hometowns while listening to a radio evangelist, who warns about the end of days and the corruption of humanity. It’s as if the crimes have been snatched and subsumed by the banality of everyday life, by the frenzied passage of time and the tireless hustle of capital, all of which estrange the acts themselves.
The first murderer is Bernadette Protti, an antisocial teenager responsible for killing her classmate, a cheerleader named Kirsten Costas, with a kitchen knife in 1984. That same year, Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer whose home was found in 1957 containing furniture and paraphernalia fashioned out of human body parts, died in a mental hospital. Protti’s crimes don’t exactly compare to the freak-show atrocities committed by Gein, yet both have been turned into fodder for pop-cultural narratives. Gein became a direct inspiration for such eminent cinematic villains as Norman Bates in Psycho, Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. And “Death of a Cheerleader,” though its legacy is less visible than Gein’s, has fueled multiple made-for-TV movies.
Benning offers a different way of seeing, an antidote to the spectacularization of violent crimes that also reckons with our distressingly palliative coping methods. He structures each of the film’s two sections like a stripped-down Q and A between a documentary interview subject and a robotic-sounding off-screen interrogator, and each new question is prompted by a cut to black. The actors performing the killers’ transcripts, at odds with the mechanical nature with which their testimonies unfold, are fumbling, awkward, and unwilling or unable to give account of their crimes. “I don’t remember,” they say over and over again. Benning, an experimental filmmaker known for employing a high degree of formal structure and static shots to lush, painterly effect, uses the American landscape as a silent yet dynamic communicator of the country’s fraught history and politics. Throughout the film, Benning rolls out static images of their regular stomping grounds in suburban California and rural Wisconsin, places whose placid emptiness seems to echo the killers’ denial.
“When I visited Plainfield, I couldn’t get a sense of the murder,” the traveling narrator says of Gein’s hometown. “But the feeling of a collective guilt still lingers.” Benning captures this imperceptible lingering in his images, which refuse to indulge in grisly, exploitative reenactment. Instead we get sterile, dead-eyed spaces—churches, police stations, snowy vistas—teeming with secrets and hurt. In this sense, Landscape Suicide is a hauntology, concerned with conjuring the tension between traumatic memories and the self-preserving suppression of those memories, and the way that this tension is inscribed into environments as an expression of collective amnesia. In between the two parts of the film is an extended shot of a lively teenage girl—an avatar for Kirsten Costas—chatting on the phone in her rose-colored bedroom as a cloying rendition of “Memory,” from the musical Cats, plays on her stereo. Thanks to the countless misogynistic slashers that dominated the era, we half expect a monstrous intrusion to shatter this quaint, quintessential portrait of ’80s teenage femininity. But Benning denies us these easy thrills, sparing this girl from recruitment into the homogenized ranks of sensationalized victimhood. More disturbing than a literal murder scene, the moment hovers in a state of ambiguity, inviting us to imagine not just the bloody destruction of an innocent, and not just her perpetual vulnerability, but the ease with which this ugliness can recede into the background, its phantom traces grazing, ever so lightly, against our plastic fantasies.
Beatrice Loayza is the associate web editor at the Criterion Collection. She is a regular film critic for the New York Times and a contributor to Film Comment, Cinema Scope, the Baffler, and other publications.
Angelica Jade Bastién on In the Cut
A woman’s long, aquamarine fingernails ripple against the clothed thigh of a man half cast in shadow and cherry-red lighting. His clenched fist pulls at her brown hair, guiding her head as she rhythmically moves up and down in his lap. He’s nonplussed by the blow job, taking a quick hit of his cigarette. What gives this act its transgressive thrill isn’t just the fact that it’s taking place in the basement of a dive bar or even that this anonymous woman will turn out to be the latest victim of a serial killer who haunts the streets of Manhattan; it’s the presence of another woman, who watches just at the edge of the door frame, at once intrigued and repulsed by this lurid scene. A single, emotionally detached high school English teacher named Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan), she is our guide through the world of violence and desire that is Jane Campion’s 2003 erotic thriller In the Cut.
The image of Frannie watching this hidden transgression feels instructive, totemic. It involves the kind of wayward longing and voyeurism that is the hallmark of the erotic-thriller and serial-killer genres, but it flips the gender dynamics by attaching these desires to a female protagonist. Frannie’s voyeurism speaks to the contradictory nature of women’s attraction and repulsion to sexualized danger. Like her, I am compelled by spectacles of violence because they serve as road maps, guides, representations of all the fears that nestle in my mind when I walk down the street and hear a lewd man calling after me, or when I watch a sickening piece of true crime. Campion’s film constructs certain female fantasies about sex and romance—the kind that erotic thrillers and rom-coms alike have enshrined as alluring ideals—only to allow them to sour irrevocably, exposing the ugly realities that exist behind them.
Perhaps In the Cut so convincingly conjures the gendered experience of desire—and how it teems with the suggestion of violence—because it’s driven by two women artists at the top of their craft, both of whom are clearly fascinated by the ways in which a woman’s gaze can illuminate these subjects. Meg Ryan gives a coiled performance full of quiet and the sort of minute shifts in physicality that place us in the bramble of Frannie’s interior life. She is a woman who yearns, deeply. Campion proves cunning in casting Ryan, a mammoth star who at the time brought with her associations of sparkling romance and friendly urban spaces where love can happen on any street corner. Campion removes her from that sentimental world and situates her in a hostile Manhattan landscape, a masculine terrain of detritus, danger, grit, and heat rendered in fungal greens and yellows.
The most effective moments in the film happen at the intersection of violence and sexual desire. There’s the scene in which Frannie’s stalker, John Graham (a seedy, manic Kevin Bacon), screams as she firmly tries to sever contact. And the one where Frannie’s sepia-colored visions of her parents’ courtship while ice-skating turn bloody. I’m particularly struck by the scene in which Frannie and Detective Malloy (a tricksy Mark Ruffalo), who is investigating the ongoing murders, first have sex, turning their barbed flirtation into something physical. She’s back at home after their failed date earlier in the evening, still wearing the same white and red dress. He comes up behind her, demonstrating how the unknown assailant who mugged her in an earlier scene could have wrapped his arms around her. The intimate moment shifts from being a reenactment of the violence to being something different altogether when he grazes her nipple through her dress. Frannie’s suspicions about Malloy cast a pall over their romantic entanglement. There’s something cagey about him; his larkish smile and sexual skill form a patina of danger. But it’s this very danger that pulls her closer. The sex scene that follows isn’t romantic or sweet, but raw need made flesh.
The erotic thriller often falls into the trap of reifying the patriarchal mores it’s primed to critique or at least cast into doubt. But Campion—alongside cinematographer Dion Beebe and cowriter Susanna Moore, whose novel provides the source material—understands that wrestling with a genre that always concerns power, sex, and gender might also disabuse us of the romantic fantasies that delude us. For much of the movie, Frannie has been living in an erotic dreamworld, but by the end the real threat of violence has intruded upon it, turning to rot what once had the potential of great beauty. On a dreary night, she waltzes against her will with the man who wants her dead. She can’t trust the cops. (How canny is it that this story reveals a cop to be the arbiter of heinous violence, given the ways many men use the profession to obscure their abuse of women? How revealing is this scenario of the real-life ways in which cops are often the very people we need to run from, not to, when we’re in danger?) As her dance with this man gives way to a bloody struggle for survival, the pleasures that erotic thrillers offer—the at times voyeuristic dynamics that seem so intoxicating and even emboldening at the start of the film—begin to decay, revealing how the cultural games of romance and desire can often curdle into women fighting for our very lives.
Angelica Jade Bastién is a critic for New York magazine’s site, Vulture. She lives in Chicago with her cats, Judah and Professor Butch Cassidy.
Megan Abbott on Zodiac
I’ve long wrestled with serial-killer movies, a genre historically fraught with issues of gender and power. For every American Psycho, with its wildly subversive take on toxic masculinity and capitalism, or for every Dressed to Kill, with its twisty, provocative deconstruction of sex and the body, there are countless others that are queasy, underdeveloped, exploitive, tedious. But one of the greatest riches of David Fincher’s extraordinary 2007 film Zodiac is how little gender and sex matter in traditional ways.
The Zodiac’s victims were both men and women: a pair of couples, a lone cabbie. The murders aren’t sexualized in obvious ways. Their horror emanates from a place that seems, somehow, at least in Fincher’s parlance, beyond or before sex. Yes, the film focuses on three men who are drawn into a sinking mystery radiating from the center, with the women in their lives receding into the background in classic-Hollywood fashion. But ultimately Zodiac is less concerned with gender or identity or even a male desire for control over the uncontrollable than with a larger, existential horror at a darkness too deep and consuming to penetrate or escape. A darkness that spreads like an infection, a virus, from the movie’s first moments.
Zodiac opens with a sumptuous and terrifying scene of a murder—a young couple gunned down in a lover’s lane by an unseen assailant. But the movie’s true beginning comes moments later, not with a bang but a letter: the first of the killer’s missives, the single piece of paper from which everything to come derives. Because, at heart, Zodiac is not a serial-killer movie. It’s about our relationship to darkness, our attraction to it, our obsession with the shadowy unknown. All the murders take place in the first twenty-five minutes. The next two hours are entirely about how that obsession eats its main characters alive, or nearly so.
The letter passes from a mail truck into the San Francisco Chronicle building, through the newsroom and ultimately onto the conference table at an urgent editorial meeting, where it’s read aloud, then sent around the table so all the newspapermen can study it, lay hands on it. The exchange unfurls like a scene from Contagion (2011), the letter functioning as a virus circulating around the room, some responding with indifference, but two with curiosity—the very two who will be “infected”: cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). We watch as Graysmith waits his turn, his anticipation mounting as ours does. When the letter ends up in his hands, he even runs his fingers across the top edge, making an invisible seal.
In the language of epidemiology, the letter is the agent, and Graysmith and Avery are the hosts in the room. Their shared obsession with the case becomes a kind of passing back and forth, over and over again, of the same disease, which gets stronger each time. Soon, they are joined by an earnest cop, Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), completing the central triad: three wildly different personalities who share nothing other than a vulnerability to a virus that may be latent inside them already, waiting to be unleashed. Once infected, they’re thrown into an endless spiral of red herrings, MacGuffins, blind alleys, dead ends. “I need to know,” Graysmith says at one point, exhausted and baffled by the depth of his own obsession.
And, in defiance of the genre’s conventions, the case doesn’t get smaller, more narrow, as the investigation continues. Instead, it gets bigger, more existential. As the suspects accumulate and definitive evidence proves elusive, you begin to share with the three protagonists the sinking dread that the killer is not any of these suspects—and, worse still, you must face the chilling notion that that, even if it isn’t any of them, it could be. Because it’s just that dark out there. Unknown horrors are everywhere, and they defy psychological or sociological explanation, au courant theorizing, or any of the tidy ways we try to understand and contain the inexplicable. You can’t stop the darkness. Or, as Rita Hayworth says at the end of The Lady from Shanghai, “Everything is bad. Everything. You can’t escape it, or fight it. You’ve got to get along with it, deal with it. Make terms.”
Graysmith, Avery, and Toschi all must make terms. Avery tries to fight it—throwing away all his files, sinking into alcoholism—but in the end, the virus takes his very breath away (we last see him, wraith-like, watching Graysmith on a bar TV, an oxygen tank hoisted beside him). Toschi tries to fight it, turning to other cases, but he can’t let it go. In a scene late in the movie, he can’t stop himself from passing along tips to Graysmith, keeping the quest alive for both of them. Ultimately, you feel the case will haunt all three to the end of their days.
In its final, shattering moments, the movie teeters perilously close to a solution, a confirmation. But Fincher is after a far deeper truth than identifying a killer. Solving the crime would provide momentary satisfaction, but the void it would create is too terrifying to ponder. Obsession—perpetual, inexhaustible—keeps alive the possibility of a deeper logic, a sane world, satisfying answers, closure. On some level, you don’t really want to know the truth, because if you did, it would be over and you’d have to face a larger truth—that the darkness isn’t just out there, and spreading. It’s inside you. And you’ve been spreading it, everywhere. The virus is you.