July 2024

Zodiac (2007)

zodiacDIRECTOR: David Fincher

CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Philip Baker Hall, John Carroll Lynch


While it tells the true unsolved story of one of America’s most notorious serial killers–at least that which is publicly known–Zodiac is not a thriller, at least not in a conventional sense.  Rather, it’s a police procedural and docudrama.  Based on a true crime book by Robert Graysmith, it puts the focus not on Zodiac himself, who remains a shadowy, elusive, nameless and faceless figure (although the movie’s viewpoint is blatantly slanted toward one suspect), but on the men (including Graysmith himself) who were involved in the long-running, ultimately fruitless manhunt.  To this end, Zodiac is a bit like a souped-up, two-and-a-half hour episode of Law & Order, and will appeal to some of the same audience fascinated by the details of police procedure and investigating.  It depicts the above with slick polish and is often intriguing, but an uneven pace and the inevitable open ending will frustrate some viewers not strongly interested in the subject matter.

The self-titled Zodiac killer murdered at least seven people, four men and three women, in California between December 1968 and October 1969, mostly by shooting but at least once with a brutal stabbing.  During this time he also taunted the police, frequently writing letters (though the authenticity of some of these is in doubt) claiming  credit for his crimes (and other unsolved murders he may or may not have actually committed), threatening more (including a massacre of schoolchildren which did not happen), and sending coded messages using an array of symbols he claimed would reveal his identity (though when solved, it spelled only “Zodiac”).  The men who become embroiled in the Zodiac case are Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a newspaper cartoonist who becomes a dogged amateur investigator, Detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), and one of Graysmith’s colleagues, boozy reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.).  Led by Toschi and including police departments of San Francisco, Vallejo, Solano, and Napa, the investigation struggles to rifle through hundreds of possible suspects and thousands of leads and tips (many of which are worthless).  At one point, a man claiming to be Zodiac contacts celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox), who arranges a publicly televised radio interview, but it turns out to be a prank caller from a mental institution.  At another, Zodiac threateningly sends a blood-splattered piece of cloth torn from a victim’s clothing to the desk of Paul Avery (who promptly buys a gun and hits the shooting range).  Eventually, the investigation uncovers a “person of interest”, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), but the evidence against him is circumstantial and inadequate.  After a busy few months, the Zodiac suddenly falls silent for years, and the investigation cools.  Graysmith, unable to let go of the hunt, embarks on an obsessed one-man mission to unmask Zodiac, but this true crime story has no triumphant ending.

Zodiac‘s two biggest “problems”, from a narrative/structural standpoint, are probably unavoidable given its reliance on a true story.  First is the inevitably open ending.  The movie tries to address this by stacking the deck in favor of one suspect and ends with a level of closure, but there is no victorious moment in which the killer is unmasked and apprehended, and from a conventional narrative standpoint, this will be unsatisfying to some viewers.  Secondly, the momentum flags after the initial killing spree ends and Zodiac goes inactive.  When Zodiac is striking new victims and writing the police, there’s a forward drive to the story.  It’s a cat-and-mouse game.  It’s fascinating to watch some of the procedural details, including the difficulties in coordinating police between counties with jurisdictional rivalries that each covetously hold their own bits and pieces of evidence and haggle for access to each other’s (one department refuses to send Toschi a bootprint from their crime scene until Toschi sends them a partial handprint possibly left by Zodiac).  After the initial full-throttle investigation cools down and Graysmith turns amateur sleuth in a desperate, obsessive attempt to keep the embers burning in a dying case, the pace turns uneven and meandering.  Fincher attempts to inject some tension, but with mixed results.  There is an effectively tension-fueled and creepy scene in which Graysmith descends into the basement of a strange film projectionist who may know Zodiac, but while probably the creepiest, most suspenseful scene in the movie (complete with a ghoulish old man, dark basements, and creaky floors) it’s also ultimately a pointless side tangent to nowhere and (while based on a real incident) feels included just to maintain the level of tension.  An earlier scene in which the detectives interrogate Arthur Leigh Allen is more sedate but also tense and uneasy without being so dramatic about it.

Since it’s based on Graysmith’s book and Graysmith here is the central protagonist (especially in the second half), Zodiac is less-than-objective in its opinion of Zodiac’s identity, slanting the story in favor of Graysmith’s favorite suspect Arthur Leigh Allen.  One could argue the movie is a little unfair to Allen, who may not have been the most savory individual (he was fired from a teaching job amid accusations of inappropriately touching schoolchildren), but was one of several suspects implicated by a fair share of circumstantial evidence.  If Allen (who died in 1992) had lived to see this film, one could imagine him suing for slander.  Like Graysmith himself, Zodiac does everything possible within the facts of the case to finger Allen while paying no more than perfunctory lip service to any other suspect.  To this day, no one has ever been formally charged with being Zodiac (a possibility that seems increasingly remote as the decades stretch on), and the case is considered inactive.  While various reporters, cops, investigators, and general members of the public have their personal favorite suspects, Zodiac remains anonymous.

David Fincher’s direction is technically accomplished but more straightforward and workmanlike than might be expected based on his filmography, where stylish flourishes are common and the camera seems to have a personality of its own.  The stylish direction evident in, say, his 2002 thriller Panic Room, is little to be seen here.  There’s nothing wrong with Fincher’s direction, but it has less of his distinctive fingerprints on it than one might expect.  Period details of the late ’60s/early ’70s are impeccable, from the cars to the wardrobes and hairstyles to the background musical selections, right down to little details like everyone casually smoking and drinking at their office desks, and Fincher goes a good job recreating the atmosphere of paranoia that descended on San Francisco and surrounding areas as their streets were stalked by a faceless, nameless killer.  Other serial killers have claimed many more victims than Zodiac, but Zodiac’s impact on pop culture stretched longer than his actual murder count.  Zodiac was the inspiration for the Scorpio villain in the original Dirty Harry and one of his threats against a school bus directly inspired a scene in the movie (the movie references this in a darkly comedic bit where a stressed-out Detective Toschi tries to unwind and get his mind off the case by going out to a movie, only to happen across Dirty Harry, which he quickly realizes starts to sound suspiciously familiar).  The killings themselves are reenacted docudrama style with meticulous accuracy to accounts of survivors (in two attacks against couples, the man of the pair survived), depicted in frank, clinical detail, with Zodiac either masked or his face mostly left out of the camera, leaving his identity ambiguous.  The slaying at the lake, where Zodiac foregoes his usual gun to brutally and repeatedly stab a young couple, is the most disturbing scene, and might be difficult for some to watch, not because it’s particularly gory, but in fact because of its spare, low-key docudrama feel.

The acting, like the direction, is competent, if unspectacular, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., and the rest of the cast giving fine performances in material that focuses much more on procedural than character development.  The only one with any attention devoted to his personal life is Graysmith, a single dad who gets a girlfriend and later wife (played by Chloe Sevigny) whom he eventually drives away as his quest for Zodiac’s identity turns into an all-consuming obsession, but this is a small subplot.  Graysmith is played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a low-key wide-eyed earnestness in the first half that grows into a manic obsession in the second.  Clean-cut and boyish at first, Gyllenhaal ends up scruffy and slightly wild-eyed.  Unsurprisingly, Robert Downey Jr. gives the most flamboyant performance, but his effete rogue with alcohol and substance abuse issues isn’t anything he hasn’t played in various other films, and given his well-publicized real-life issues, one is tempted to suspect it’s not much of a stretch from Downey himself.  Mark Ruffalo is solid in a more subdued performance as the harried Detective Toschi.  Brian Cox does some scene-stealing in a colorful bit part as flamboyant celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli, and other small roles are filled by Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Philip Baker Hall, Zach Grenier, Donal Logue, Clea DuVall, Ione Skye, Jimmi Simpson, and Adam Goldberg.  John Carroll Lynch manages the tricky task of giving Arthur Leigh Allen a vague, ambiguous creepiness without doing anything overt.  He only appears a couple times, but makes an impression.

Zodiac‘s determination to adhere with strict fidelity to Graysmith’s account and the facts of the case  and refusal to sensationalize or dramatize real-life events, is both a strength and a weakness.  Its authenticity is, from an integrity standpoint, a virtue, and from a conventional narrative standpoint, a weakness.  It’s a murder mystery in which the mystery is not solved (at least not in a concrete, unambiguous way), and the villain goes unpunished.  A literal documentary might be equally informative and equally fascinating to those interested in the subject matter, but while Zodiac has flaws as a film, it’s a a well-made true crime drama, and a good place to start for those interested in the investigation of one of America’s most infamous serial killers.

* * *