As an avid follower of the Zodiac case for years, I was really quite excited about seeing a new, definitive work about one of the most notorious serial killers in history. Giddy as a school girl, you ask? Well maybe not quite, but the fact that David Fincher was directing definitely sweetened the deal. The man is an artist, Alien 3 not withstanding because what went down with that picture wasn’t entirely his fault. (For a full account, seek out a book called The Best Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, it’ll knock your socks off.)
To some, Fincher’s Seven was a plateau of greatness that the director has yet to rescale. Others may interject with a word about Fight Club, but the movie is deeply divisive among film buffs who either love it or hate it. The Game and Panic Room are usually toss-ups depending on who you ask. For me, they are visually vibrant and technically brilliant movies that don’t always live up to Fincher at his best, especially The Game coming right on the heels of Seven. So where does Zodiac fit in with the Fincher filmography? Somewhere between Seven and Fight Club I think; it is definitely a fine piece of filmmaking made with deliberate care and vision.
Based on the true life story of the eponymous killer that stalked the San Francisco Bay area in the late 60s and early 70s, Zodiac focuses on the lives of a group of people that get sucked into the mystery by accident or their own accord, and how they’re affected by it. We meet Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a meek and mild-mannered cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s instantly drawn into the case when the Killer’s first letter arrives at the paper. Graysmith bounces ideas off Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), who covers the crime beat for the Chronicle. On the police side is Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). They have to sort through the clues, the crackpots and the jurisdictional conflicts in an attempt to bring the Zodiac to justice, ultimately to no avail.
I hope I didn’t spoil that for anyone. The fact’s on the record that no one’s ever been caught for the murders, SFPD even kept the case on ‘active’ until only a few years ago. The case literally spans decades and it touched the lives of so many people and not just the four main characters. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt do an incredible job of streamlining the narrative and presenting it clearly in a compelling story that is part docudrama and part living case file.
Gyllenhaal is good as Graysmith, but considering the film was based on his books, I have a hard time believing that he’s really the doe-eyed, eager to please Eagle Scout that’s portrayed in the movie. I’ve read the books and the one thing that Gyllenhaal doesn’t capture is the sense of obsession, the state of absolute enrapture with the mystery, the piling over a mountain of minutia for even the slightest detail. Also, I’ve seen Graysmith in interviews and he’s always come across as a bit of an egoist, someone so firmly dedicated to the fact that his conclusions are the right ones, despite evidence to the contrary. In the movie, Graysmith may be a little neglectful of his wife and family, but he’s the man when it comes to the Zodiac. He’s got the right answers that all the cops and law enforcement have missed. Granted this is partially done for the benefit of the story because it’s hard to follow a case with dozens of investigators, but there are times when the movie makes it seem that Graysmith was the only one pursuing leads and evidence after a neglectful and dispassionate police force gave up.
That was a tangent and I apologize. Let’s get back to the other actors, like Robert Downey Jr. for example, who’s a masterstroke of neurotic wit. His Avery doesn’t get obsessed in quite the same way as Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith, but covering the case is the straw that broke the camel’s back for a man already in suffering. Downey handily proves again why he’s one of the finest screen actors working, channelling his own drug-addled past in his portrayal of Avery as a high functioning addict, whose reckless pursuit both on and off the page play a part in his breakdown. Ruffalo is also good, though, less flashy as Toschi, a man who is determined to solve the case, but is able to leave it at work and not let it consume him. Several other really good character actors come in and out in smaller roles. Brain Cox stands out in a brief but memorable turn as attorney Melvin Belli, to whom the Zodiac reached out for help.
The film was shot with the Thompson Viper digital camera, the same kind used to shoot portions of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, giving the night scenes their rich colour and texture. The vintage look and feel of the film is unquestionable, especially when watching Ruffalo walk around in classic 70s gear; there’s even a grainy quality to the film that’s perhaps more felt than seen. Much of the more grisly violence is over by the end of the first act; the majority of the film is about the investigation and its impact on those investigating it. The film kind of stumbles by the fact that there’s no real outcome for the case; Graysmith gets to look his Killer in the eye, but the whole thing ends kind of half-heartedly with a lengthy coda about what happened to those involved, and the case itself. Personally, I would have shaved the last two scenes, for the way they blatantly reinforce Graysmith’s disproved conclusions, but that’s Monday morning quarterbacking.