With Zodiac, David Fincher returns to the scene of his first cinematic triumph: the serial killer genre. Unlike his self-consciously stylish, surprise twist-punctuated Se7en, however, the director’s latest is played for exacting realism, with a conclusion that any true-crime buff will know from the outset. Operating according to different ground rules this time around—the most pertinent being the well-known fact that, in real life, the titular Zodiac killer was never formally identified or apprehended—Fincher aims for suspense via both traditional thriller means as well as through a comprehensive analysis and recreation of the sprawling investigation into the Zodiac’s random murders during the ’60s and ’70s by San Francisco Chronicle “boy scout” cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and hard-nosed, soft-spoken inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). Based upon his own extensive research as well as Graysmith’s two nonfiction books about the case, the Fight Club auteur’s first film in five years is a police procedural creatively indebted to works like All the President’s Men, much of Sidney Lumet’s canon, and HBO’s The Wire, with which it shares a detail-driven focus on the process of formal police and journalistic inquiry. Yet as this sprawling opus unfolds, what emerges isn’t simply a routine detective story but something far more masterful, and haunting: a two-and-a-half hour portrait of obsession run amok, and of the multifaceted influence of the media—and the cinema—on society.
Zodiac’s exhaustive attention to minute facts and theories forms a parallel not only with Graysmith and Toschi’s fanatical need to nab the killer—who terrorized the Bay Area with murder and taunting letters to police and newspapers (replete with mysterious ciphers) that, per his demands, were published as front page news—but also the director’s own perfectionist filmmaking methods (which reportedly included upward of 70 takes for a given scene). This bond shared by Fincher’s fictionalized material and his own techniques is a fitting one, given that Zodiac’s concerns extend past simply depicting the efforts to nab the titular fiend, and toward an examination of the two-way mirror between film and reality. In one of his first missives to the San Francisco Chronicle, the man-hunting Zodiac aptly references The Most Dangerous Game, an instance of life being influenced by (and imitating) art that finds its flipsides later on, first when someone calls Toschi “Bullitt”—a sly allusion to the fact that the detective was the basis for Steve McQueen’s iconic S.F. cop—and then when Dirty Harry premieres, Zodiac-ish villain in tow. Fincher decorates background walls with classic movie posters and includes a self-indicting, pre-opening credit visual clue (elucidated during the third act) that speaks to cinema’s potent cultural impact, a point succinctly emphasized by Zodiac in a late letter: “Waiting for a good movie about me, I wonder who will play me.”
The influence movies exert on Zodiac’s rampage, and the resultant desire to have his deeds refracted through the camera’s eye, is a dynamic that manifests itself similarly in the killer’s relationship with the news media. Through his numerous handwritten letters, the Zodiac cannily (and chillingly) uses the press for his own devious means, an act of manipulation Fincher shows repeated by the papers and television, who latch onto the story not simply for objective reportage purposes but for their own self-interested reasons. “He’s [Zodiac] in it for the press,” deduces boozy, ascot-wearing San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr., exhibiting his usual quirky, flamboyant mannerisms). It’s a selfish motive that Toschi accuses Avery of sharing—saying the man’s articles are driven by the desire to “up circulation”—and which underwrites everything from the city’s broadsheet competition over the news item to Graysmith’s suggestion that Avery sell for profit the buttons (“I Am Not Avery”) which appear after the reporter receives a personal threat from the Zodiac. By the time attorney Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) appears on TV at the Zodiac’s request, it’s clear that everyone involved has helped greedily transform the case into sensationalistic entertainment, so that when Belli argues that “Killing is his compulsion” and Toschi shoots back “Could be, or maybe he just likes the attention,” Zodiac has already proven both lines of thought to be true, and inextricably linked.
Questioned about the veracity of Avery’s apparent discovery of the Zodiac’s first victim, Toschi’s partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) replies, “It’s very real. You know how I know? I saw it on TV.” A sense of the media being the primary vehicle for truth permeates the proceedings. Fincher, however, shrewdly challenges such impressions at regular intervals, such as when a Vallejo, CA sergeant (Elias Koteas) bends rules and gives amateur sleuth Graysmith access to confidential files because Zodiac is “yesterday’s news, so what’s the harm?”—a statement that reveals press attention to be the crucial force behind (and, as implied by Graysmith’s eventual success, an obstacle to) investigative work. In this light, Fincher’s sterling montage featuring newspaper headlines, Zodiac scribblings, and camera lenses overlaid on a shot of detectives in police HQ cleverly captures the incestuous bond between Zodiac and those who are covering/hunting him, a connection that increasingly seems to foreshadow elements of our own contemporary, exploitative information age. The Zodiac’s letter-writing antics may have been partially inspired by Jack the Ripper (a kindred spirit, certainly), but Fincher’s film astutely and persuasively intimates that his utilization of—and history of having been influenced by—the media and cinema also make him a distinctly modern serial killer.
Shot on state-of-the-art HD by Harris Savides via a process that required absolutely no celluloid or tape, Zodiac is itself something of a technological pioneer. Fincher utilizes his all-digital medium for drab authenticity, his image’s flat quality giving his period detail an un-flashy fidelity. Such a toned-down aesthetic (full of fades to black) is matched by David Shire’s taut score and the director’s conspicuously reserved camerawork, which favors tense close-ups for its prototypical thriller-genre sequences and little of the show-offery (rollercoaster pans and swoops, grandiose effects) that have increasingly defined his films. This subdued approach is in keeping with the film’s economical and absorbing attention to case particulars, though Fincher’s more exhibitionist tendencies do intermittently rear their head, with aerial compositions of a taxicab and the Golden Gate Bridge (and a time-lapse of a building’s construction) indicating that the director couldn’t completely quell the desire to visually let loose. While a tad distracting, these excessive cinematographic moments nonetheless smoothly mesh with Fincher’s aspirations for grand comprehensiveness—an objective that only seriously falters during Zodiac’s cursory, unresolved references to the problematic role that racial and homosexual stereotypes played in the citywide manhunt.
Although striving to achieve the epic, Fincher’s story is backed by a solid character-based narrative foundation, as James Vanderbilt’s script never loses focus on his story’s human element. At heart a tale of consuming mania, the film diligently concentrates on the deleterious ramifications of Graysmith and Toschi’s work, capturing (thanks to Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo’s committed, no-nonsense performances) the way in which their uncontrollable fixations on uncovering the killer’s identity were symptomatic of a time and place engulfed by the case. Graysmith and Toschi’s partners Avery and Armstrong offer respective models for escaping the mystery: the former quitting the homicide beat for his wife and kids, the latter taking a swan dive into sloshed dereliction. Yet the duo persevere at the expense of sanity and familial stability, dramatic crises that are slightly weakened by cardboard-cutout spouses for both men, but which are still acutely affecting during a scene in which Graysmith’s bookish wife Melanie (Chloë Sevigny) discovers her estranged husband encased, like a Bob Woodward version of Richard Dreyfuss’s Close Encounters daddy, in a living room stacked with research documents. A later sight of Graysmith flipping through a family album-style scrapbook of Zodiac clippings merely underlines the cost of his cause: the killer has literally become his kin, his life.
Consequently, Zodiac forms something of a companion piece to Se7en and its cynical, world-weary view of personal quests for “justice.” As with Brad Pitt’s detective Mills, Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith brings himself and his clan to the brink of ruin in order to stop a serial killer, and learns—albeit to a lesser extent than the tragic Mills—that happy endings are the stuff of fairy-tale fiction. (Spoiler alert.) Convinced that former military man and convicted pedophile Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) is the Zodiac, Graysmith finds himself incapable of doing anything substantial about it, his reward for going crazy and alienating loved ones and colleagues ultimately nothing more than a pitiful, catharsis-free staredown with the suspect that starkly emphasizes his powerlessness. An honest man who pays a weighty price for trying to be something he’s not (namely, a detective), Graysmith—despite a somewhat upbeat “where are they now” textual coda—thus eventually comes to resemble a classic noir hero. And the fact that he continues, to this day, to write about the infamous, never-captured S.F. boogeyman adds a final, poignant punctuation to Zodiac, with Graysmith’s inescapable enthrallment suggesting that for many, true obsessions never really die.