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I’ve talked in the past about how my least favorite runtime is two hours and forty minutes. It’s right at that point where you should either trim the fat or go all out, cutting thirty minutes or adding twenty. It’s an ungainly, ugly runtime. It signals a self-indulgent sloppiness. Remembering that Zodiac was this long made me a bit reticent to revisit it. But I think the film is one of the few of its brethren to actually get away with it, for one reason: Zodiac is about the passage of time.
For the first 100 minutes or so, nearly every new scene in Zodiac comes with a timestamp chyron. “Six hours later,” “7 1/2 months later,” and so on. The implied passage of time communicated by a cut is made literal by on-screen text. At one point, characters are shown leaving a place to go somewhere else, and as the film cuts to their arrival, we’re told exactly how long it’s been. We don’t strictly speaking need to know this. But it forces us to reckon with the passage of time directly, rather than in the abstract. It gives that offscreen time a heft, a weight; we are made to know it exactly.
It’s necessary, too, when cuts contain such wildly different timeframes. Editor Angus Wall rarely differentiates between a two-hour cut and an 18-month cut. It’s all the same matter-of-fact transition. The only way you understand how much time is actually passing is through those chyrons. The Zodiac investigation as depicted here is so harried that it seems everything was happening at once for those initial few years. A jump of several months may as well be a jump of several days. One day, the hunt is on and the leads are hot. The next, as Dave Toschi puts it, “they’re already making movies about it.” Time passes so quickly. That is, until it doesn’t.
After the four-year jump at the film’s midpoint (covered in the director’s cut by a neat audio montage of news bulletins and popular music), time seems to slow down considerably. The timestamp chyrons are gone. Everything in the final 40 minutes seems to happen over the course of a single night. As Graysmith gets more frantic and obsessed, the only way we know time is passing at all is by his increasingly unkempt facial hair. The arc of time in this final section loses its strictly organized structure and all starts to blend together. I find this sort of mushiness less compelling than the ordered manicness that preceded it, but I do admire making such a dramatic editorial shift so deep into such a long film.
I think I like Zodiac a bit less now. I hadn’t seen it since high school, when I was on a stereotypical Fincher kick. I was blown away by it then, but on rewatch I found it more whelming than overwhelming. It’s a perfectly good movie. I think Fincher uses his fastidious focus on process and obsession to more interesting ends in Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network, though it’s been ages since I’ve seen either of those as well. If nothing else, Zodiac is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Mark Ruffalo in his predestined role as a rebooted Columbo. You’ve gotta give it up for that.