I would have given a great deal to have been at the studio screening of David Fincher’s Zodiac. I wonder who said first, “You mean, this movie is almost 3 hours and we never definitively learn whodunnit?”
The 1969-1970 Zodiac killings are unsolved and at least by serial killer standards, the Zodiac racked up a meager body count (only 5 victims are confirmed as by Zodiac’s hand). Nonetheless, these narrative infirmities are more than compensated for by the killer’s panache. Zodiac taunted the police departments of four different Northern California communities with letters to newspapers, including ciphers to be broken which promised to reveal his identity and wild threats (including one to shoot San Francisco kids as they left school buses). Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac wanted to lord his superiority over his pursuers.
Fincher takes the Zodiac case and uses it to dramatize exactly how such a crime burrows itself into the marrow of people, altering them profoundly. Jake Gyllenhaal is The San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who becomes obsessed with the killer the day his first letter to The Chronicle appears. Graysmith would eventually write the definitive book on the Zodiac, and as played by Gyllenhaal, he is sucked into the mystery to the near exclusion of all else. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Paul Avery, the Chronicle crime reporter who covered the case and received a threatening letter from the Zodiac. Avery had labeled the Zodiac a latent homosexual and the Zodiac wrote him a Halloween card warning, “You are doomed” (which resulted in the staff of The Chronicle creating buttons emblazoned with “I Am Not Paul Avery”). Downey’s Avery is driven from The Chronicle, to drink and drugs and despair, exacerbated by his fear of the Zodiac. The two police officers assigned to the case are also damaged. William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) eventually transfers to another division while Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is at one point accused of forging a Zodiac letter (he was cleared of all charges). There are also the survivors. The Zodiac attacked 3 couples while they were alone and vulnerable, but two men survived, one of whom was the only living person to see the Zodiac. He is a shell, having escaped the country, found at the end of the film to provide one final clue.
The psychological study is encased in a meticulous yet accessible procedural. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt keeps myriad threads intertwined without sacrificing pace, no mean feat given a multi-jurisdictional crime reverberating in the worlds of the police and journalism.
Fincher re-creates those crimes in a manner that communicates their terror and the vulnerability of the victims without being sensationalist or gratuitous. Indeed, the most frightening scene is one where no violence is done. Five months after his last killing, the Zodiac killer pulled over a woman with her baby on a highway, letting her know her back tire was wobbly. He feigned assistance by tightening the lugnuts, but the wheel fell off immediately after she got back on the road. The killer came back, offered to bring her to a service station, but instead drove her around until she was able to escape into a nearby field with her baby (the connection to the Zodiac was made after he referenced the encounter in a letter to The Chronicle a few months later).
It’s hard to imagine that the director of the gruesome Seven made this picture, which is restrained, methodical and to my mind, infinitely scarier. Having to turn away and shut your mind off has less of an effect than when you cannot do so and you’re required to think.
This film has just recently been offered for streaming on Netflix so take advantage.