During its theatrical release, David Fincher’s Zodiac was at least partially marketed as some kind of slasher film from the director of Se7en. This probably accounts for its low numbers at the box office, since the slasher movie crowd is definitely not the target audience for this movie, which has more in common with All the President’s Men than it does with Fincher’s 1995 serial killer movie.
The film deals with three men who become obsessed with finding the elusive serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco area for ten months in 1969 and 1970. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall), upon whose book the film is based, was an awkward, insecure, somewhat goody-two-shoes cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, with an interest is solving puzzles, and he becomes hooked by the original cipher’s sent to the newspapers after the Zodiac’s second pair of murders on July 4, 1969.
Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the hard-drinking, chain-smoking crime reporter for the Chronicle. Because the murders happened in sleepy Vallejo and not the city, he is initially reluctant to get involved, but eventually the killer’s elusiveness and taunting letters have him obsessed as well, to the point where he considers himself the expert on the case and begins making end runs around the police investigation.
Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned to case with his partner, Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) after Zodiac kills his final confirmed victim, cab driver Paul Stine. Perhaps due to his police training and objectivity, Toschi does not become obsessed with the case to the same unhealthy degree as the others, but he pursues the killer doggedly for years, long after others had transferred away from homicide or retired.
Avery’s obsession with the case slowly exacerbates his other self-destructive tendencies until he eventually implodes both personally and professionally. Graysmith, still “just a cartoonist,” remains interested in the case for years but doesn’t become fixated on it until years after most people have given up. He begins pursuing leads on his own, much to the annoyance of virtually everyone around him, especially Avery, Toschi and Graysmith’s second wife, Melanie (Chloë Sevigny). Avery doesn’t want to be reminded, Toschi doesn’t like the idea of a cartoonist doing his job for him and Melanie is just getting creeped out by her husband spending all of his time focused on a serial killer and getting the kids involved in the project.
The movie focuses largely on one suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), whom Graysmith and others believe is the most promising (even though Allen was posthumously exonerated by DNA evidence several years ago), but it is less about the search for the killer than about the self-destructive nature of obsession.
The film’s depiction of its early seventies setting is nearly flawless, both in terms of production design, the music, right down to the little details of both story and performances. This extends right down to the Paramount and Warner Brothers logos before the picture, which are correct for a film opening in 1969, excepting the necessary changes to reflect their new corporate ownership. At least, I’m pretty sure “AOL Time-Warner” did not exist in 1969.
Various other period touches will wring smiles out of those with long memories. Brian Cox is on hand as a self-serving Melvin Belli, and one scene has him being congratulated for his recent role on the original “Star Trek” (easily one of the worst episodes and performances in the series’ entire run). Also, we see the lead detective taking in a screening of Dirty Harry, which was very loosely based on the Zodiac killings.
The film does not dwell on the violence of the murders but it doesn’t shy away from it, either. Zodiac’s killings are presented matter-of-factly, almost without comment, which makes them almost more disturbing than anything found in a horror film. The attack on Bryan Hartnell (Patrick Scott Lewis) and Cecilia Shepard (Pell James) at Lake Berryessa is particularly disturbing in its unblinking shot of two people being brutally stabbed.
If there is a weak point here, it’s the structure required by making Robert Graysmith the main character. In reality, he was only tangentially involved in the case in the early days. In order to justify presence in the first half of the film, the filmmakers had to invent a fictitious friendship between him and Paul Avery when, in fact, the two men barely knew each other. Of course, the movie is based on Graysmith’s books about the Zodiac killer, so Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt probably felt they had no choice, but as a result, you have a major character who just hangs around for half the film, being mostly superfluous.
However, with its rigorously accurate period feel, plus its methodical and grinding depiction of both police and newspaper work, Zodiac has successfully de-mythologized a serial killer who inspired many fictional murderers who were far more interesting than he was. Ultimately, he proves to be unworthy of the attention paid to him by the main characters of this move and society at large. This is not a flaw in the film. That’s just the way it was.