Perhaps one of the most notoriously known serial killers in modern day America goes by one name: Zodiac: The Zodiac killer, who was never caught, was the type of phenomena that conspiracy theories are made of. And while there may possibly be a few suspects that might have committed the gruesome murders that the public is aware of (five in total), though many more could be linked to Zodiac, the case has famously never been solved. In director David Fincher’s first feature in 5 years’ time, his previous being Panic Room, his focus isn’t on the acts of violence themselves but the rabbit holes that each character ventures down at their own risk.
Based on the novel of the same name by cartoonist turned author Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), screenwriter James Vanderbilt and Fincher explore the aftermath of the serial killings and seemingly one man’s pure obsession with discovering the truth. It’s less about the murders and how brutal they were, since we only see the flashes of what happened from those who survived and more about the suspense in the chase. The hunt for a serial killer – a game of predator and prey and how the roles change frequently especially when Graysmith puts all his energy into Zodiac.
The case itself is quite fascinating. We all know about it to a degree, even if most don’t know the full detail of each murder. Whats also fascinating is societies obsession with murder and true crime. It’s more poignant of a story to dive into given the fact that the killers themselves are subject to character studies. There’s something about exploring a psychopath’s mind that we just can’t get enough of. Look at all the crime series on tv – the obsession grows exponentially every year. Zodiac feeds into that obsession with David Fincher holding the IV.
Zodiac is the perfect type of character study that Fincher is perfect for. Look at his previous films to date. All minus Alien 3 center around a person’s psyche and what makes them obsessive and paranoid. With Zodiac, the focus is on Graysmith’s obsession with the case even after law enforcement has given up on solving the case. Graysmith becomes paranoid in his search. He’s the real-life version of the Narrator from Fight Club. Every avenue he explores, every dead end and dark alley is dangerous which speaks to Graysmith’s character. He will risk his life and alienate everyone including his family to find the truth.
Zodiac plays it by the book, the same as how the characters went about their investigations. Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Inspector Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) follow police procedure. They’re the moral center in Fincher’s film. As much as Zodiac is a police drama, it’s also a newsroom drama. Majority of the film surrounds Graysmith as a cartoonist and Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) as they navigate the cyphers and letters and Rubik’s cube like puzzles Zodiac sends to the San Francisco Chronicle. I can’t help but think of All the Presidents Men as the inspiration for Avery and Graysmith’s relationship together.
Aside from the mystery surrounding the murders, the biggest strength of the film is in the dialogue. For a film about a killer the emphasis is on the characters feebly attempting to solve the murders than the killings themselves. As a viewer, you can’t help but participate in the solving the encryptions Zodiac sent to the newspaper. We know what the characters know, nothing more, nothing less and Fincher lays out all the information with utmost transparency.
Fincher’s unique style of storytelling is all over this film. His use of a quicker pace and anticipation of whats next will keep the viewer on the edge of their seat; the same way he does with Panic Room & The Game. There are moments when the danger ebbs and flows – quickening the pace at the right moments to make your heart rate speed up and slowing down to exhale after a suspenseful moment.
And even though the case was never solved, depending on your interpretation of the events, Vanderbilt and Fincher find a way to resolve their story. Of course, the narrative has to point to someone as a suspect, that person being Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) otherwise whats the point? Arthur was looked at by Toschi and interviewed but ruled out as a suspect. Graysmith pulls on that string – his gut says Arthur is the killer and whats more evident than the nail-biting moments in Arthur’s home and basement.
As much as Zodiac is a character study into the mind of a serial killer, it’s a character study into the mind of the one hunting for the truth and what it does to a person. Narratively, the Zodiac killer is the focus for the first act while the meat and potatoes focus on the case. There is infinite amounts of information and conspiracies surrounding Zodiac that Fincher and Vanderbilt find a healthy mixture of reality and conspiracy and present the information in a way that most likely is the truth. What that truth is, we’ll probably never know, the killer is probably dead by now.
Not only does the story build the suspense and tension but David Shire’s score adds to that pulse pounding anxiety that Fincher’s films are famous for. Each scene is framed to build anticipation for the next one, with the unseen looming threat that could potentially result in a disaster for the character we get to know more personally.
personally, I admire the atmosphere in Zodiac. California in the 60’s was a dangerous place and Fincher captures that essence. What Fincher does in Se7en in creating the dark, depressing atmosphere is done here but from the characters themselves creating that energy.
Where Zodiac comes up short, at least for me is in its lengthy runtime. Nearly three hours of narrative and dialogue can feel tiresome when we all know the outcome of the case and thus the film.
Zodiac is written by James Vanderbilt, directed by David Fincher is Rated PG-13 and has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Zodiac was released on March 7, 2007 in the United States and has a runtime of 2 hours and 42 minutes. Zodiac can be bought by online retailers like iTunes, Amazon and Google. 4 out of 5.