A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this three-hour movie about the investigation into a string of real-life serial murders during the early 1970s is too violent and disturbing for most teens (and probably even some adults). While some violence takes place off screen, what does appear is brutal and bloody: The Zodiac shoots a couple in their car, stabs another couple in the back (the victims' pained, horrified faces are shown both times), and shoots a cabbie. Police officers and reporters discuss the deaths in some detail. Characters drink heavily and smoke frequently (one also uses hard drugs). References are made to the killer's "latent homosexuality" and a suspect's pedophilia. Language includes repeated uses of "f--k."
What's the story?
An intelligent, sinuous mystery, ZODIAC is less interested in sensational violence than in the ways that the media affects such violence. Based on the notorious, still-unsolved early-1970s Zodiac murders in the San Francisco area, the movie focuses first on efforts to figure out the murderer's motives and then on the ways that the Zodiac "imagined" himself into public consciousness by writing letters to the San Francisco Chronicle and leaving clues to taunt the police. The film begins with a murder -- the first one for which the killer took public credit. After the shooting, Zodiac calls the police and sends a letter to the Chronicle, demonstrating -- in his mind, anyway -- that he's smarter than all of them. As he uses the media to "make himself up," the movie considers the effects of the case on those who pursue him, including Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards); as well as earnest cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and brilliantly self-destructive crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). They run into problems at every turn, from law enforcement officials in different jurisdictions who don't want to work together to handwriting experts, fingerprinters, and even celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox). With egos getting in the way, only rudimentary technologies to work with, and legal impediments, no one cracks the case, and everyone loses themselves to it.
Is it any good?
David Fincher's excellent movie includes several violent murder scenes (a stabbing is especially grisly). But it's more interested in the consequences of the brutality: crime scenes, investigative procedures, fear in the community. In a mess of intersecting obsessions and deceptions, Zodiac finds remarkable coherence, tracing the similar needs, means, and fictions that structure truth.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the media's relationship with serial killers. How do the killers use the media to gain attention? How do the media use the killers to gain ratings? How do viewers and readers respond to such coverage? Think about how movies portray killers and their pursuers: Unlike The Silence of the Lambs, this movie focuses on the investigation, with very little information about the killer. How does that affect the film's narrative and displays of violence? Is violence more effective when it's shown, or when it's implied? Why?
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