Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: James Vanderbilt (screenplay), Robert Graysmith (book)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and John Carroll Lynch
Unsolved murders haunt us. As the detective played by Mark Ruffalo remarks at one point in Zodiac, there were 200 murders committed since a serial killer left his brutal mark on the zeitgeist. Those murders were explained, though, and as a result they are boring to us.
There are several fictionalized versions of the story of The Zodiac Killer, because finding a narrative that rewards a viewer would be daunting and it would miss the point. This is a story that is not about rewards. There is obsession laced within every frame of it, driving all of the principal characters and not just the psychopath. A need for justice, a need to definitively know lies buried beneath the daunting surface of this David Fincher masterwork.
Fincher is a man who knows obsession. He is infamous for sometimes doing more than 100 takes of a single scene, so much so that I don’t need to go into further detail about it. Let’s just say Zodiac was a perfect fit for him. He constructs it like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Partnered with the screenwriter James Vanderbilt, the two mine the depths of serial movie cliches and unearth a bold new vision.
Zodiac is a film about its story, one that only had killing in the beginning. The murders are brutally and efficiently filmed within the first third of the more than two-and-a-half hour narrative. Unlike so many other serial killer movies, they are not a prize for sitting through the story.
Fincher’s refusal to reward an audience with gore is only one of the difficulties this movie would present a mainstream American audience. It also denies a satisfying ending or definitive answer to the crimes, a la Dirty Harry. Instead, we are tasked with following a cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) and a detective (Mark Ruffalo) as they grapple with various degrees of obsession with this case.
Zodiac‘s genius is in that structure, which brilliantly intertwines the facts from the cartoonist Robert Graysmith’s exhaustive Zodiac book with fictional versions of the real-life characters. No characters have been invented to easily explain away plot details. Instead, Fincher simply lets the story unfold for more than half the movie before allowing Graysmith to emerge as the protagonist.
The Zodiac Killer was responsible for seven definitive victims, two of whom survived. He’s by no means the most “successful” serial killer if you can call it that. What made him infamous was his taunting ciphers; letters to the editor of newspapers like The San Francisco Chronicle that contained maddening clues at his identity but were ultimately all dead ends.
More than other serial killer movies like Silence of the Lambs, Zodiac would fit comfortably among movies like Caché, another thriller that favors hidden criminals and mystifying perplexities over a Hannibal Lecter and a big bang conclusion. It features sequences of disarming violence early on, but these are off set by a darkly playful mood for the rest of the movie.
Despite Fincher’s macabre whimsy, he can instantly conjure up a mood of dread, something he demonstrates when Graysmith follows a lead to the apartment of movie house owner, who he believes employed the Zodiac killer. He needs a writing sample to match up with letters the killer wrote, because previous work has shown it to be the “closest match yet.” Then the mysterious man reveals he was the one who wrote the movie posters.
At this point, terror seeps into Gyllenhaal’s grown-up Eagle Scout as well as the audience, but Fincher never blinks. He lets loose with precise technique that orchestrates the dread in such a way that is baffling after the fact. Through all that written exposition up to that point, a master filmmaker found his way through.
It’s points like that where Fincher allows technique to take over, but he mostly favors straightforward “True Story” narrative devices here, the most useful of which is period atmosphere. Zodiac evokes the late 60s and 70s without the director having to betray his lust for brooding shadows.
Though most of the movie takes place in the dark, the most disturbing scene happens (no doubt intentionally) in broad daylight. A young couple sits by the serene Lake Berryessa. As the sounds of nature surround them, the Zodiac slowly creeps toward them. Dressed all in black, he has the woman tie her husband up, and then he ties her up. He makes them think it’s a robbery, but then returns and stabs them both repeatedly.
Gore isn’t enhanced here and in the other killings, but it is stylized at certain points to fit the soundtrack. Fincher is a stylistic filmmaker, and has still managed to become an auteur even though he is not a writer/director. His films are moody, dark, filled to the brim with obsession. They feature strong performances from an ensemble cast who are no doubt sick of performing by the time he yells “Cut!” Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr. and Ruffalo are all excellent, but there’s no way of knowing if that exhaustion on all their faces is acting.
Zodiac is a definitive statement of Fincher’s obsessive gifts as a director, precisely because the story was already filled with it to begin with. Was Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) really the Zodiac Killer? “Probably,” is the best answer anyone will give you, including Fincher. The difference with him is that he’s willing to show you through the demented media circus and the destroyed lives of the many still alive, that that may not be the point.