Watching the detectives

This thriller defies conventions to show the true personal cost of a murder case

<strong>Zodiac (1

"That was the most frustrating film ever!" hissed the woman behind me, at the end of Zodiac. I could see her point. She'd come to watch what she'd thought would be a nice, grisly thriller about a bloodthirsty lunatic. Instead she got two and a half hours of newspaper reporters barging through revolving doors (quite a trick if you can manage it) and haggling with police over every shred of evidence. But - and I didn't say this to her, because she really had a bee in her bonnet - Zodiac is often quite brilliant, possibly for some of the same reasons that left her fuming.

The signs suggest this will be a standard serial-killer film. For a start, it's about a real-life killer, known as "the Zodiac", who targeted sweethearts in late-1960s San Francisco, before expanding his brief and accruing a large but still-unconfirmed body count. The picture is directed by David Fincher, who redefined the serial-killer genre with his stylishly macabre thriller Seven (1995). It begins with a brace of shocking murders, filmed almost lovingly, with a tender regard for the slow-motion spray of blood. I think Fincher should have made these scenes slightly less, well, exciting. In contrast to the deliberate slowness of the rest of the film, these early slaughters feel disconcertingly like show-stoppers.

But that is the only serious misstep here. The rest of Zodiac painstakingly follows the four men caught up in the case to the detriment of their personal lives. Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is a homicide inspector dressed in a natty chequered jacket, the merest glimpse of which leaves you in dire need of paracetamol. His partner, Inspector William Armstrong, is notable chiefly for being played by ER's Anthony Edwards - but with hair! It's so bizarre, like a drug-free Pete Doherty or a funny Jack Dee.

At the San Francisco Chronicle, where coded letters from the Zodiac have been arriving, the dandyish reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) is on the case, assisted by Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), an eager young cartoonist whose own investigation persists for more than two decades. Fincher gets the scenes at the Chronicle office piercingly right. In this pre-computer age, the starkly lit room is alive with the rat-tat-tat of typewriters and the ceaseless ringing of chunky telephones. It reminded me of why I first wanted to go into journalism. As a child, I saw an episode of Lou Grant, the classic 1970s newspaper drama: all those scoops, and all those bolshy journos running around the office with mild drink problems and heavy stubble. The reality was different - the biggest actual suspense I ever experienced in a newspaper office was when I ventured into the sports section to borrow a stapler.

I don't know that Zodiac quite has the Lou Grant effect, which is probably for the best. The film wisely strikes a balance between conveying Graysmith's thrill at each new crumb of information and exposing the degree to which his obsession erodes all domestic harmony. Cinema commonly applauds single-mindedness in its heroes, but Zodiac shows the cost of it, too. In one scene, we see Graysmith spending quality time with his three young children: they're all sifting through evidence at the dinner table. You have to chuckle when the end titles state that nowadays "Robert Graysmith enjoys a healthy relationship with his children".

Though Zodiac begins with murder, it illustrates other, more insidious ways in which lives can be destroyed. And it acts as a mild corrective to the tendency in thrillers to dispel all that's bad in the world in the final reel. There is a telling moment here when Toschi walks out of the première of Dirty Harry, a film that turned the facts of the Zodiac case into a macho wet dream. Fincher is spurning that kind of storytelling, with its manufactured heroes, villains and resolutions. I think that's why I like Zodiac so much: it manifestly isn't Dirty Harry or CSI or Inspector Morse. Frustrating? Perhaps. But only if you believe in happy endings, or in any kind of endings at all.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide