Who made it?: David Fincher (director); Ceán Chaffin (producer); James Vanderbilt (screenwriter); 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.
Tag-line: “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer”.
IMDb rating: 7.8/10
Could this be the most underrated film of the decade? 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 mad man. Following three individuals connected to the case, the core focus of Zodiac is placed on intrepid detective Dave Toschi (Ruffalo), unstable news reporter Paul Avery (Downey Jr.) and political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (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 his picture with as much factual evidence as possible.
Nothing 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 (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 counter-point. Zodiac’s reign of terror was fuelled by the media, 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 films 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; long takes that raise tension, and a shot or two that leaves a lasting impression. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t show-off – a bird’s eye view following a taxi (with the Zodiac in the back-seat) 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 films 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 was wasted. The devil is in the details, and perhaps Fincher’s greatest achievement with the film is that it makes 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 you 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 (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 set-piece that truly unsettles. Fincher’s use of the Donovan classic “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is creepily effective. I’ll never hear that song in the same way again.
You can view the scene here.
This would have to go to Allen’s interrogation and his brief summation of the films themes:
Allen: Oh. The Most Dangerous Game.
Allen: The Most Dangerous Game. That’s why you’re here isn’t it? It was my favourite book in high school. It’s about this man who waits for these people to get shipwrecked on this island. Because he was tired of hunting animals, he hunted the people for the challenge.
Toschi: And man is the most dangerous animal of all?
Allen: That’s the whole point of the story.
- 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.