Directed by David Fincher
Written by James Vanderbilt, Based on the book by Robert Graysmith
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch
David Fincher just can’t seem to get away from the morbid and disturbing. Beginning his feature-film career with the much-maligned Alien 3 and continuing through with Seven and Fight Club, even his more fun films deal with the darker shades of human nature, usually ending on some dour note that wrecks a fragile faith we as a society has come to hold dear. Zodiac certainly fits neatly into this reading of Fincher’s work, as its structure more befits a political procedural with no clear ending than a typical serial killer film.
Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a cartoonist who works for the San Francisco Chronicle. His quirky ways irritate Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a reporter whose drinking gets in the way of doing his job. The two become friends thanks to a shared interest: the Zodiac killer. Graysmith steadily becomes obsessed with the case, as Avery’s life spirals into drunken oblivion. Graysmith’s amateur sleuthing puts him onto the path of David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a police inspector who has thus far failed to catch his man. Graysmith’s job, his wife and his children all become unimportant next to the one thing that really matters: catching the Zodiac.
The Zodiac Killer was a serial killer who operated in Northern California in the 1960s and ’70s, and originated the name himself in a series of cryptic letters and ciphers he sent to police and newspapers in the San Francisco area. Beyond this, not much is known about him, since he was never caught. Using this mystery, David Fincher’s film follows not the killer directly, but three people with whom the Zodiac would become a lifelong obsession: detective Dave Toschi, newspaper crime writer Paul Avery, and political cartoonist Robert Graysmith.
In this approach, the film does for serial killer flicks what All the President’s Men did for political thrillers; by taking a less-is-more, from-the-outside kind of mentality, Zodiac becomes a different breed of thriller, one that feels efficient and pulse-pounding despite the near-three-hour runtime and lack of on-screen scenes of the killer’s rampage. In a way, Fincher’s film seems to perfectly capture both the cultural shock of Zodiac himself as the fear of his presence pervades San Francisco and the cyclical feelings of discovery and frustration that each of the three leads experience.
Zodiac begins not with the killer’s first confirmed attacks, but with the second, a choice that only becomes fully coherent with the very end. Taking place the night of July 4th, 1969, we follow Darlene Ferrin, a married woman, as she drives down a picturesque dusk neighborhood, fireworks exploding in the distance, arriving at one house in particular to pick up her secret lover, Martin Mageau. As night descends, the beauty of each shot begins to betray a creeping sense of unease as they pull off to a secluded couples spot, where they are stalked by a mysterious car. When the unseen occupant exits his vehicle and proceeds to riddle both of them with bullets, you know you are in for a spine-tingling time.
Much of the film seems to be made of build-up to these moments of shock, but is never filler. Weaving in and out of the different arenas of Zodiac’s cat-and-mouse game with society, the film gives us an intimate view into the newspaper media of the time, the law enforcement bureaucracy, and how neither seem to ever congeal into a coherent force working together to catch the psycho. For an uncommon procedural, Zodiac nails just why men like the killer are sometimes never caught.
Shot on digital Thompson Viper cameras, Zodiac achieves the now-signature 21st Century Fincher look–low contrast, smooth details, and a diffuse look that almost emulates faded 1970s film, but without the dirt or scratches. I usually don’t prefer this look, gravitating more towards a more authentic filmstock appearance, but Fincher’s eye wins me over, imbuing even the mundane scenes with the unease of the time which makes the viewer tremble a bit inside.
What really propels the film into classic territory, however, is the acting. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, the man who would eventually write the book upon which this film is based. Displaying an aptitude for puzzles early on, he quickly becomes attached to the Zodiac case despite not being taken seriously by his colleagues. He is, after all, a cartoonist. Gyllenhaal can have some detractors with regards to his abilities, but anybody who doubts his Graysmith has a serious screw loose. Graysmith is likeable yet single-minded in his obsession, wholly convincing. So too is Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, the crime writer who seeks the glory of catching Zodiac, as if he’ll become Bob Woodward before Bob Woodward. With his career-defining role as Tony Stark just under a year in the future, RDJ gives us a preview of that character, with a smug confidence that erodes into horrific substance abuse after he receives a letter from Zodiac himself.
Probably my favorite performances in the film are Mark Ruffalo and John Carroll Lynch. Ruffalo plays Toschi, the San Francisco detective who worked the longest on the Zodiac case. From his first scene, he exudes a proficiency with his job unmatched by other detectives, but begins to crack under the pressure of this seemingly-unsolvable case. Lynch plays Arthur Leigh Allen, the prime suspect for Toschi and many other characters in the film. Lynch is unsettling in many ways, but never tips his hat too far as to unequivocally paint himself as the Zodiac, only allowing the audience to form a tortured “maybe.”
And therein lies the biggest strength of Fincher’s Zodiac, one that still defies explanation as to how the film received such mainstream acclaim: it doesn’t truly end. After Allen’s suspicion falls apart due to lack of evidence, the film begins to trail off, briefly picking up pace when Graysmith takes over the investigation as part of his book, but never arriving at a clear answer as to who Zodiac truly is. Indeed, by the end, when Mageau returns to the narrative to point out from a photo lineup the man who shot him in 1969, he seems completely sure–and then halfheartedly suggests that he had features from another man in the lineup, casting doubt on his memory. Like the 70s themselves, Zodiac drifts into nothingness with no payoff, no closure, just unanswered questions and the gut-wrenching feeling of letting a killer slip away unscathed.