While recently discussing emotionally devastating movies to watch (I know, right?), a number of titles got tossed around, but I finally settled on a documentary feature on Netflix entitled Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. It turned out to be one of the most emotionally taxing films I have ever seen. I was told to watch the movie without looking at any synopsis for the film, and I didn’t. I went into it blind and would strongly encourage anyone else that wants to watch it to do so as well. That being said, stop reading this right now and go watch it. Once your eyes have dried come back here and we can discuss it further. If you prefer, you can just keep reading, as I anticipate some of you will do. I won’t give away much in the rest of my review, so if you decide to keep reading I won’t blame you.
The movie is about Dr. Andrew Bagby. Bagby was a man that was loved by just about everyone that he that had the pleasure to know him, he was kind, witty and smart. The film seeks to memorialize him by talking with everyone that he knew. The filmmaker, Kurt Kuenne, was one of Bagby’s best friends growing up. That’s why, when the news of Andrew’s untimely murder reaches him, he sets out to preserve his friend’s memory. Yes, Andrew Bagby was murdered. While the initial intent of the film was to record numerous people talking about who Bagby was to them, it turns into a fascinating and absolutely heart wrenching look into the faults that face the legal system. As the film progresses, details about the incident that left Bagby dead. Slowly Andre’s parents become the focal point as Andrew’s former girlfriend and accused murderer comes forward with the news that she is carrying Andrew’s child. Andrew’s parents then proceed a long legal battle for custody of their grandson.
The pure emotional energy is overwhelming. Those interviewed for the film express a great deal of joy in reminiscing about Andrew Bagby, and then instantly crumble into to tears. The movie is a case study on injustice, and pain and hatred and anger and loss and devastation, so much so that the weight of it is shared with the viewer. I normally am turned off from films with a political agenda, whether I agree with it or not. But I have to recommend this movie based solely for it’s genuine emotional value. Very few movies have had the effect that Dear Zachary had on me. It highlights both the evil in the world as well as the hope. When people grieve they find the darkest parts of themselves seeping out, and this film is all about grief in the most horrendous of circumstances. It is, however about hope and determination. It’s not an easy movie to watch, but one I would recommend.
To generate fear has been a practice as old as fiction itself. Fear comes from a number of sources spanning every genre and faucet of life and literature. Individuals fear different things and at different levels. One movie cannot universally frighten the entire audience that it reaches. There are, however, certain movies that do an excellent job of conveying the fear and dire situations of the people portrayed on screen onto an audience; in my experience the most unsettling cases aren’t necessarily the ones that use copious amounts of blood and scare tactics to convey that fear, but it is, rather, the ones that stem from reality. David Fincher directed a film that followed the case of the Zodiac Killer in the 1970s. While it wasn’t a horror movie, though the semi-fictionalized film certainly managed to be an example in atmospheric storytelling. Keeping the facts of the case at the heart of the movie, Fincher allows us to follow along with the progress of the case through the eyes of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a reporter who keeps tabs on the story as the police attempt to identify and apprehend the serial killer. And while it omits many horror movie tropes, it manages to chill it’s viewer in ways that a horror movie could only hope to.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s a series of murders took place in Northern California. The individual that took responsibility for these murders sent taunting letters and puzzles to the press. These puzzles earned him the nickname that the movie gains it’s title from. 2007s crime drama, Zodiac, utilizes excellent acting and directing to draw the audience into the depths of a story that centers on these actual events that horrified and devastated many people. Fincher handles the reality of the content extremely well; using actual case files as a guideline, he allows the actors to guide both the story and the audience through the events that transpired. Gyllenhaal portrays an eager reporter who becomes more enamored with the case than his own writing. What starts as an interest becomes borderline obsession. Everyone in the cast does an excellent job of portraying each character, the realism in the film is unflinching and manages to keep you watching with bated breath.
The tone of this movie is extremely dark. While the murders are shown not in a stylized bloody succession of quick edits with the sound of overly loud screaming. Rather, we’re shown them with a steady shot. This isn’t a horror movie, this actually happened and we’re shown, one murder in particular, as if we were standing maybe 10 feet away. The filmmakers involved, primarily Fincher, don’t want this to be an overly sensationalized horror movie, they want the facts shown and the story to be told in the way that it probably happened. Zodiac differs from other horror and suspense movies in that it allows the viewers extended breaks between murders. The reason for this is because Zodiac isn’t a movie about murders, it’s a movie about trying to find the man behind the horrific acts. The subject matter itself is enough to add it to the “spooky movie” sub-genre, but it’s the effectiveness of the portrayal of content that makes it not only chilling, but absolutely intriguing.
We are experiencing a huge surge of horror movies that rely on cheap scares and buckets of blood to “scare” an audience. This is unnecessary and ineffective when compared to a well told and well made suspense story (in terms of actually frightening an audience). There is little gore in Zodiac, but what it lacks for in graphic horror it more than makes up for in tone and atmospheric terror. Fincher understands that subtle seasonings of horror can often go a lot further than an overabundance of the same ingredient.