Because the real-life case of the Zodiac Killer has never been closed, except for a few years in which it was marked ‘inactive’ by the San Francisco Police Department, this version of events by David Fincher is a rare Hollywood mystery: after detailing the long investigation into several murders Zodiac claimed he committed, the puzzle at the heart of the movie – namely the identity of the serial killer – remains unsolved (or, at least, it’s still uncertain enough to ensure that no suspect is in custody). Dirty Harry, a more conventional thriller that used the Zodiac persona as a basis for its antagonist Scorpio, approached things in a more cut-and-dry fashion. Its hero rubs out this force of evil and solves the case by the end of the movie, but it was made at a time when the Zodiac Killer was still at large, and possibly still actively killing; if the cops couldn’t get him, and the newspapers couldn’t figure out who it was, then at least American citizens could sleep at night knowing that Clint Eastwood was around to deliver some rough justice. But the clear draw for Fincher, along with screenwriter James Vanderbilt, was the question mark hanging over the Zodiac case in real life, the fact that it remains unsolved. Their adaptation of former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith’s book was released in 2007 to wide acclaim, and there’s a powerful argument for it being Fincher’s most accomplished work to date.
At the beginning Zodiac follows genre conventions, to a certain degree. The audience witnesses dramatisations of murders that took place in real life during the late 1960s, though the face of the man committing them on screen is never made clear. (To increase confusion the director used different actors for each scene depicting murder or attempted murder.) There is a tense pre-credits sequence in which a camera points out of a car window as it crawls along a kerb; at first it looks like a stalker is driving, but the car actually belongs to a young girl, who picks up her boyfriend before heading to a secluded spot. Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man plays on the radio as a couple of minor incidents raise the tension, and eventually a figure appears behind the car, shining a torch through the back window before firing several gunshots into the vehicle. It’s a striking set piece, and Fincher subsequently uses our association of murder with cars and music to create a sense of dread prior to other attacks, all of which appear during the first act: a couple are stabbed after driving to a lake, a cab driver is slain in a residential street at night, a woman whose car is sabotaged on a highway escapes with her life intact.
Initially the investigation into these crimes is played out in the offices of the Chronicle. Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is interested in letters and cryptograms sent by the killer to the newspaper, and senior crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr), who initially dismisses the young oddball, gradually comes to respect his colleague’s dogged determination and perceptiveness. What’s most impressive is the way that the film subsequently shifts into different periods, concentrating on different characters or different combinations of characters as it does so. This is natural, as the time period covered by the film is 14 years – 33 if you include information presented during the end credits – so inevitably there are sudden leaps that span months or years, and the private and working lives of these characters require them to focus on other matters. Music changes. Clothes change. Gyllenhaal, somewhat remarkably, remains baby-faced throughout. As time passes we stop seeing the Zodiac Killer’s attacks, for possible reasons that become apparent later in the story. Gradually we see less of the Chronicle’s offices and more time is spent with the police investigation, led by Mark Ruffalo’s Inspector Dave Toschi and Anthony Edwards’ Inspector William Armstrong. Avery slowly slips out of the picture, the suggestion being that the reporter became more interested in alcohol and other drugs during the 1970s, and Toschi’s influence eventually subsides when he is charged with fabricating evidence and demoted. Armstrong transfers. The one constant presence during the film is the mousy-but-obsessive Graysmith, which is understandable given that Zodiac is based on his book; his appetite for information about the case does not cease, even when he starts to receive crank phone calls and even when his exasperated wife (Chloë Sevigny) takes the kids and leaves. It’s the mild-mannered cartoonist who eventually comes closes to putting all of the pieces together.
Gradually the clear premise – a small task force of policemen and journalists are trying to identify a killer, and surely they’ll get there eventually – gives way to a story that becomes ever more clouded as facts are laid upon facts, key witnesses are allowed to disappear for years and boxes containing information and statements pile up in different police stations. Numerous apparent breakthroughs only ever result in one arrest, and that doesn’t lead to a charge. Evidence found is largely circumstantial, and not enough for a court to convict, so the prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) remains a free man at the end of the film, as he was when he died in real life. The characters themselves never seem to be in possession of all of the necessary information, or never quite understand the full extent of the killer’s actions: it’s possible that the Zodiac Killer is taking ‘credit’ for other murders, or that other people are pretending to be the Zodiac Killer, but no-one knows for sure, and it’s also possible the murderer is responsible for killings without admitting to them (though this is unlikely). Different police departments in San Francisco and surrounding counties where crimes took place fail to share information, and as with another recent Ruffalo-starring procedural – Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight – there’s a sense throughout that the failure of organisations and individuals to co-operate or act with the necessary due diligence makes the task of investigating at a later date extremely difficult.
Fincher’s obsession with surfaces is evident from the off, and the director employs a number of extreme close-ups to catalogue the evidence and other details related the case. Some digital effects are employed for establishing shots, for example a vertigo-inducing look down from the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a slow, creeping pan over water toward San Francisco’s many piers. The late Harris Savides shot incredibly crisp digital footage, which is beautifully-lit during the many nighttime scenes, and it’s all impeccably edited by Angus Wall, who cuts with restraint when necessary and clearly understood the material, or was well-directed when it came to discussions about the intended pace; if he was troubled by concerns over the running time it’s not evident. Clearly Zodiac is the work of a formidable team – production designer Donald Graham Burt also deserves a mention, while David Shire provided a fitting noir-ish original score – and it stands apart from most modern crime movies by eschewing the neatly-resolved ending, as well as the usual action sequences and cop heroics. (Like Spotlight, the subject is not really the crime but the way that it is investigated, and that investigation doesn’t lead to any showdowns, save for a shared look between Allen and Graysmith near the end.) Fincher’s film is incredibly stylish, but there’s meat on its bones; it works as a thorough police and paper procedural, but its success also comes from the way it serves as a multilayered critique of organisational interdependence, as well as the unsteadying influence of the media on high profile criminal cases (in a more satisfying way than 2014’s stuttering Gone Girl). I was impressed by certain elements of Zodiac when I first saw it in cinemas, but didn’t quite get the fuss, and fell asleep near the end (hey, it happens). The second time I felt more attuned to Fincher’s skill as a filmmaker. This time – third viewing – I’m convinced that the high-esteem in which it seems to be held by many is fully deserved.
Directed by: David Fincher.
Written by: James Vanderbilt. Based on Zodiac by Robert Graysmith.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Chloë Sevigny, Philip Baker Hall, John Carroll Lynch, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, Adam Goldberg.
Cinematography: Harris Savides.
Editing: Angus Wall.
Music: David Shire.
Running Time: 157 minutes.