David Fincher returns to serial killer territory for a mesmerising modern classic based on true events.
Who made it?: David Fincher (Director), James Vanderbilt (Writer), Ceán Chaffin (Producer), Warner Bros./Paramount.
Who’s in it?: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas.
Tagline: “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.”
IMDb rating: 7.7/10.
Could this be the most underrated film of the 21st Century to date? Zodiac is the antithesis of the modern Hollywood thriller; true to the facts of the grisly case, obsessed with detail, leisurely-paced, and missing that most prized of studio traits: A happy ending.
David Fincher’s most sophisticated film is notable for its multi-faceted structure. An old school police procedural at first glance, the technically-proficient director manages to fashion a picture that is both brutal and remarkably restrained. Like Se7en before it, the climax provides no catharsis for the viewer… only a chilling uncertainty. That he manages to gain audience satisfaction without closure is a testament to his ever-growing prowess as a filmmaker.
Raised in San Francisco, where the bulk of the film transpires, Fincher was only a child when the Zodiac began his killing spree in 1969. Never apprehended, the killer lives on more as a myth than a flesh and blood madman. Following three individuals connected to the case, the core focus of Zodiac is placed on intrepid Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), unstable news reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Based on the latter’s best-selling account of the case, the film gradually reveals itself as a meditation on obsession, as the lives of these good men slowly unwind in their quest for the truth. It is an obsession that Fincher shares, filling the proceedings with as much factual evidence as possible.
Little seems staged or embellished in Zodiac. The screenplay by James Vanderbilt is stunningly dense in its structure, managing to sift through almost three decades of history with a remarkable fluidity. Fincher is also aided by authentic production design and cinematography, which evokes the era in a way which doesn’t feel forced. Most directors would use music as a shorthand, but Fincher isn’t content with that. A bravura sequence, in which we see the construction of San Fran’s Transamerica Pyramid in fast-forward, moves the story ahead several months better than a mere title card ever could. The newsroom where most of the film takes place also evolves; a lick of paint here, a few changes in staff there etc. It’s subtle but it works. Zodiac feels lived-in. These people exist.
Guiding us through the evidence, red herrings and interrogations is an ensemble cast that defines quality. Ruffalo’s portrait of the honourable Toschi is especially vivid. He’s the archetypal Hollywood cop, but he nails it. His scenes with partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) convey a history and a sense of mutual respect that is usually lacking in these sort of films. Better yet, the pair seem like credible detectives, and Vanderbilt’s hyper-literature script is stuffed with crime scene vernacular. The “characters” speak in a way that seems natural for their profession and the exposition is shrewdly-handled; imagine CSI if it didn’t beat you over the head with every bit of evidence.
But that is the procedural half of the film. The events in the newsroom provide a logical counterpoint. Zodiac’s reign of terror was fuelled by the media and he got off on it. The San Francisco Chronicle was the newspaper that received the killer’s letters, and Avery was even targeted by him directly. Downey plays to his strengths in his portrayal of the sozzled journalist, essaying Avery’s descent into fear and alcoholism with a profound sadness. Yet his scenes with Gyllenhaal give the film some levity, such as their discussion of the case over one too many drinks.
The Donnie Darko star has never been better or more suited to a role. He is known for his good-natured personality off-screen and his persona is ideal for Eagle Scout Graysmith. He becomes the film’s lead in the final stretch of the picture, probing deep into the Zodiac case when everyone else has given up hope.
While the cast acquit themselves admirably, this is Fincher’s film. Finally moving away from the frenetic, over-stylised feel of his previous work, the director composes Zodiac with an old-fashioned eye; there are long takes to raise tension and an emphasis on the characters over contrived set-pieces. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t show-off – a bird’s eye view following a taxi (with the Zodiac in the backseat) is a marvellous melding of photography and visual effects. The digital compositions by Harris Savides are pleasing to the eye, yet never at the expense of the film’s quasi-documentary feel. Fincher uses his widescreen frame to the full, and in a career which includes Fight Club and Panic Room, it’s a bold statement to call Zodiac the director’s best-looking film. There’s just something about his obtuse attention to specifics that fits this material like a glove.
That passion for minutia is ultimately why Zodiac is a polarising piece of cinema. Those expecting a fast-paced, thrill-a-minute serial killer film in line with Se7en have no right to be disappointed. Zodiac isn’t that – it’s a thoroughly accurate account of what really happened, and while the film takes its sweet time getting to that haunting denouement, you never feel like the time is wasted. The devil is in the details and perhaps Fincher’s greatest achievement is in making you as fascinated as the people involved. There’s nothing more terrifying than the unknown, and Zodiac ends on a note of ambiguity that chills me to the bone.
If he’s still out there, I wonder if he enjoyed the film as much as I did.
There are numerous great scenes in Zodiac – the interrogation of prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) is an undeniable highlight, as is the attack at Lake Berryessa (highly disturbing in light of its accuracy). However, it is the opening scene which lingers in the mind the most. The killer’s first appearance is an expertly-executed sequence that truly unsettles. Fincher’s use of Donovan’s classic “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is creepily effective. I’ll never hear that song in the same way again.
- The release of the film reignited interest in the Zodiac case and it was subsequently reopened.
- The Warner Bros. and Paramount logos that open the movie resemble the designs from 1969.
- Graysmith and Avery weren’t friends in real life, one of the films few embellishments.
- Toschi inspired Steve McQueen’s performance in Bullitt (1968), including the way he wears his gun in that film. The murders were also an influence on the plot of Dirty Harry (1971), a scene from which is used in Zodiac.
- Real-life survivor Bryan C. Hartnell (from the Berryessa incident) cameos at one point in the police station.
- Philip Baker Hall appears as a handwriting expert, but he’d been involved with his material before, in straight-to-video quickie The Zodiac (2005).
- Fincher used digital effects for the blood in the film.