Director: David Fincher
Entertainment grade: A–
History grade: A
In the late 1960s and 1970s, a serial killer calling himself Zodiac terrorised northern California. Though he repeatedly corresponded with police, press and public, he was never caught.
A young couple park their car in a quiet spot after dark. Meanwhile, someone else is watching – and waiting. It's a classic horror film set-up, except this really happened on 4 July 1969 in Vallejo, California. It was the second confirmed double shooting by the Zodiac killer (the female victim, Darlene Ferrin, was killed; her companion, Mike Magneau, survived). The gunman called police just after midnight to report his own crime, and also claimed to have killed "those kids last year". The switchboard operator noted he seemed to be speaking from a script. On 1 August, letters from the killer containing details about the murder and mysterious cryptograms were received by three newspapers in the area. It's all brilliantly recreated in the movie, with exquisite attention to detail.
One of the newspapers that receives a Zodiac letter is the San Francisco Chronicle, where reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) takes up the case. But it's the paper's cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who really develops a fixation on it. Movies need heroes, and it's probably inevitable – because Graysmith turned amateur sleuth and eventually wrote a bestselling book on the case – that he becomes one here. Some Zodiac case enthusiasts won't like this. Graysmith's analysis is not universally accepted. What makes Zodiac unusual as a historical movie is that it doesn't try to pretend its hero is perfect. In fact, it deliberately includes a few of Graysmith's wackier moments, like trying to match the killings to lunar cycles, badgering witnesses, and getting carried away with his own fame. On the other hand, it has cast Jake Gyllenhaal, who is a fine actor but just can't help looking like an adorable puppy at all times. So he adorably becomes obsessed with a serial killer, and adorably neglects his wife and children, and adorably names suspects based on his own unorthodox investigations. Aww! So cute. He can't be a baddie.
Though Zodiac claimed 37 killings, there were five canonical Zodiac murder victims and two survivors. The movie also brings in the possible additional Zodiac cases of Cheri Jo Bates, murdered in 1966, and Kathleen Johns, abducted along with her baby daughter in 1970, who managed to escape. Many directors would have been tempted to play up the Johns case for maximum horror-movie effect, perhaps showing her running through the woods while Zodiac chased her with a flashlight. Whether that happened or not is disputed. Initial police reports seem to disagree with Johns's later testimony. Director David Fincher charts a historically judicious course, and doesn't show her escape at all. He may have made Se7en, but with Zodiac he proves he's no sensationalist.
Despite (or because of) its restraint, Zodiac remains utterly compelling. Few screenplays successfully weave into one narrative such a large ensemble of characters, as well as a series of events scattered over 23 years. This one does, and with style. Like Graysmith's book, it settles on one named suspect as the probable Zodiac. This is open to question: there were 2,500 suspects (including the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski) and at least half a dozen credible names. Even if you take issue with its theory, though, the film wins historical points for openly admitting that it's not watertight. As it says, all the evidence in favour of its suspect's candidacy was circumstantial. A handwriting test disqualified him (as did a DNA test in 2002, though that date is outside the purview of the movie). There was one piece of direct evidence – but the movie finishes on it, so I'm not going to give it away.
You may not agree with all of Zodiac's conclusions, but it makes its case credibly and allows space for disagreement. It's a perfect example of how a historical film can be accurate, balanced in opinion, and a gripping thriller – all at the same time.
'Zodiac" is the "All the President's Men" of serial killer movies, with Woodward and Bernstein played by a cop and a cartoonist. It's not merely "based" on California's infamous Zodiac killings, but seems to exude the very stench and provocation of the case. The killer, who was never caught, generously supplied so many clues that Sherlock Holmes might have cracked the case in his sitting room. But only a newspaper cartoonist was stubborn enough, and tunneled away long enough, to piece together a convincing case against a man who was perhaps guilty.
The film is a police procedural crossed with a newspaper movie, but free of most of the cliches of either. Its most impressive accomplishment is to gather a bewildering labyrinth of facts and suspicions over a period of years, and make the journey through this maze frightening and suspenseful. I could imagine becoming hopelessly mired in the details of the Zodiac investigation, but director David Fincher ("Seven") and his writer, James Vanderbilt, find their way with clarity through the murk. In a film with so many characters, the casting by Laray Mayfield is also crucial; like the only eyewitness in the case, we remember a face once we've seen it.
The film opens with a sudden, brutal, bloody killing, followed by others not too long after -- five killings the police feel sure Zodiac committed, although others have been attributed to him. But this film will not be a bloodbath. The killer does his work in the earlier scenes of the film, and then, when he starts sending encrypted letters to newspapers, the police and reporters try to do theirs.
The two lead inspectors on the case are David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). Toschi, famous at the time, tutored Steve McQueen for "Bullitt" and was the role model for Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. Ruffalo plays him not as a hotshot but as a dogged officer who does things by the book because he believes in the book. Edwards' character, his partner, is more personally worn down by the sheer vicious nature of the killer and his taunts.
At the San Francisco Chronicle, although we meet several staffers, the key players are ace reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr., bearded, chain-smoking, alcoholic) and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). These characters are real, and indeed the film is based on Graysmith's books about the case.
I found the newspaper office intriguing in its accuracy. For one thing, it is usually fairly empty, and it was true on a morning paper in those days that the office began to heat up closer to deadline Among the few early arrivals would have been the cartoonist, who was expected to work up a few ideas for presentation at the daily news meeting, and the office alcoholics, perhaps up all night, or already starting their recovery drinking. Yes, reporters drank at their desks 40 years ago, and smoked and smoked and smoked.
Graysmith is new on the staff when the first cipher arrives. He's like the curious new kid in school fascinated by the secrets of the big boys. He doodles with a copy of the cipher, and we think he'll solve it, but he doesn't. He strays off his beat by eavesdropping on cops and reporters, making friends with the boozy Avery, and even talking his way into police evidence rooms. Long after the investigation has cooled, his obsession remains, eventually driving his wife (Chloe Sevigny) to move herself and their children in with her mom. Graysmith seems oblivious to the danger he may be drawing into his home, even after he appears on TV and starts hearing heavy breathing over the phone.
What makes "Zodiac" authentic is the way it avoids chases, shootouts, grandstanding and false climaxes, and just follows the methodical progress of police work. Just as Woodward and Bernstein knocked on many doors and made many phone calls and met many very odd people, so do the cops and Graysmith walk down strange pathways in their investigation. Because Graysmith is unarmed and civilian, we become genuinely worried about his naivete and risk-taking, especially during a trip to a basement that is, in its way, one of the best scenes I've ever seen along those lines.
Fincher gives us times, days and dates at the bottom of the screen, which serve only to underline how the case seems to stretch out to infinity. There is even time-lapse photography showing the Transamerica building going up. Everything leads up to a heart-stopping moment when two men look, simply look, at one another. It is a more satisfying conclusion than Dirty Harry shooting Zodiac dead, say, in a football stadium.
Fincher is not the first director you would associate with this material. In 1992, at 30, he directed "Alien 3," which was the least of the Alien movies, but even then had his eye ("Alien 3" is one of the best-looking bad movies I have ever seen). His credits include "Se7en" (1995), a superb film about another serial killer with a pattern to his crimes; "The Game" (1997), with Michael Douglas caught in an ego-smashing web; "Fight Club" (1999), beloved by most, not by me; the ingenious terror of Jodie Foster in "Panic Room" (2002), and now, five years between features, his most thoughtful, involving film.
He seems to be in reaction against the slice-and-dice style of modern crime movies; his composition and editing are more classical, and he doesn't use nine shots when one will do. (If this same material had been put through an Avid to chop the footage into five times as many shots, we would have been sending our own ciphers to the studio.) Fincher is an elegant stylist on top of everything else, and here he finds the right pace and style for a story about persistence in the face of evil. I am often fascinated by true crime books, partly because of the way they amass ominous details (the best I've read is Blood and Money, by Tommy Thompson), and Fincher understands that true crime is not the same genre as crime action. That he makes every character a distinct individual is proof of that; consider the attention given to Graysmith's choice of mixed drink.