“Do you know more people die in the East Bay commute every three months than that idiot ever killed? He offed a few citizens, wrote a few letters, then faded into footnote.” —Paul Avery, Zodiac
There may be arguments over which David Fincher film is the strongest—the existential noir of his endlessly imitated serial killer movie Seven, the plugged-in portrait of modern masculinity in Fight Club, the Rashomon-like complexity of Facebook’s origins in The Social Network—but there’s no question which is the most Fincherian. That would be Zodiac, his 2007 recounting/reinvestigation of the unsolved Zodiac killer case that gripped the San Francisco Bay area in the late ’60s and early ’70s, then tapered off as the trail went cold. All the qualities associated with Fincher—his dictatorial command over every aspect of the production, his Kubrickian habit of forcing his actors to do dozens of takes, his rigorous attention to detail—are epitomized by Zodiac, an obsessive movie about the nature of obsession. And here’s the kicker: That obsession is never satisfied. It just lingers, pungently, luring viewers down the blindest of true-crime alleys.
Fincher has cited All The President’s Men as the primary influence for Zodiac, and the parallels are unmistakable, from the fluorescent-banked newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle to the intrepid professions in pursuit of justice to the ever-expanding cast of witnesses and informants that pile up as the investigation moves forward. More than anything, though, All The President’s Men proved it was possible to document a real-life case without streamlining it for easy consumption. Zodiac is a movie awash in information: dates, crimes, locations, suspects, evidence, meaningful connections and red herrings, breakthroughs and setbacks. And though it burrows deeply into that information—and generously respects the audience’s ability to process it all—it’s not so myopic that it misses the cultural significance of the Zodiac killer, either. On a macro scale, Fincher captures the tenor of a city transfixed by a boogeyman who embodied the anxieties of the time. On a micro scale, he cleanly explicates an absurdly complicated procedural while dealing insightfully with the type of person that would follow this case down the rabbit hole—a person very much like himself, it’s safe to say.
The opening sequence is breathtaking: Fourth of July in Vallejo, California, 1969, fireworks popping against the night sky, Three Dog Night’s “Easy To Be Hard” on the soundtrack. The lyric “How can people be so heartless?” would seem to hit the nail too hard, but the music and vocals are so soft and inviting that it doesn’t feel like we’re entering a cruel world at all. As the sequence continues with a passenger-side camera angle of a car gliding through a neighborhood alight with sparklers and bottle rockets—it’s like a beautiful motorized tracking shot—we see a suburb that appears untouched by the dramatic changes in the culture. This could be a decade earlier, an impression that’s reinforced moments later when the car swings into a diner that looks straight out of American Graffiti. Though he doesn’t go as far as David Lynch in the opening shots of Blue Velvet, the effect is similar: Here is an innocent place, steeped in Eisenhower-era Americana, that’s about to be befouled by a dark and dangerous menace.
From there, Fincher moves onto two more astonishing sequences: The first murder, where the killer guns down Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau to the swells of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” a song that suggests the Zodiac as a Pied Piper figure who carries his victims off like the children of Hamelin. (The Zodiac’s claim, via one of his letters, that his victims will become his slaves in the afterlife reinforces this impression.) The second is the opening credits, which follow the first hand-scrawled Zodiac letter from the mailroom at the San Francisco Chronicle to the news desk. From the beginning, the killer knows how the media can amplify terror: Being responsible for the deaths of half a dozen people is one thing—as Paul Avery, the troubled Chronicle reporter played by Robert Downey, Jr., notes later, “more people die on the East Bay commute in three months than that idiot ever killed”—but forcing newspapers like the Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Vallejo Times-Herald to publish ciphers under threat of violence is another matter. That’s more than serial murder; that’s terrorism. Decades before Osama Bin Laden haunted America’s collective psyche, the Zodiac accomplished it on a smaller scale, posing a threat that altered people’s lives in a way that was totally disproportionate to the specific danger of being victimized by him.
Working from a book by Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the Chronicle when the story broke, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt proceed through the timeline with a methodical, step-by-step directness that’s simple and clear, but almost radical in its disregard for the way conventional movies are structured. Fincher recreates the murders with chilling panache, perhaps in part to compensate for the fact that the bulk of Zodiac consists of nuts-and-bolts detective work—collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, following leads that either pay off or head to dead ends. The focus falls on three of the pursuers: Finding the ideal vessel for his puppy-dog eagerness, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graymith, who puts his love of puzzle-solving to good use; Downey’s self-destructive Avery covers the beat for the Chronicle, and becomes part of the story when the Zodiac sends him a threatening Halloween card; and Mark Ruffalo stars as Inspector David Toschi, a detective whose exploits would later make him the model for Steve McQueen’s character in Bullitt. These are the men who would stay with the case in the years after it faded from public conscience—though for the frazzled Avery, it was more like the case stayed with him.
My friend (and Zodiac case expert) Mike D’Angelo, who writes the Scenic Routes column for us, called Zodiac an “OCD movie,” and that’s particularly apparent in the time stamps, which are marked with such fastidiousness that it’s almost comical. Just after the Chronicle releases the Zodiac’s first ciphers, there’s a sequence that whisks the viewer from the Skaggs Island Naval Communication Station 12 hours later to FBI headquarters six hours later to the CIA in Langley five hours later to another 12 hours later in the breakfast nook of Donald and Bettye Harden, the elderly couple from Salinas that cracked the 408-symbol code. There’s a kind of madness to Fincher treating scenes in his movie like documents in a police file, but the concept of time is essential to Zodiac, and one of its primary weapons as it goes along. It’s not important that the audience remember the times, dates, and places of everything that happens, but the overall pattern has an enormous impact. From August of 1969, when the first Zodiac letter surfaced, through the following year, as he claimed more victims and threatened to pick off children on school buses, the time stamps come at a furious clip, as both the media and the police commit their full resources to tracking him down. And then it slows… and slows… and slows… until the dates get farther apart, interest in the case ceases, and the city evolves past it. Lest you believe that a filmmaker of Fincher’s prodigious talent would pass the time with subtitles alone, we also jump ahead with brilliant sequences like this one:
(Note: The “director’s cut” includes an even more audacious two-minute “blackout sequence” that passes four years over a montage of news reports and popular songs. It’s restored on the DVD, but was trimmed from a film that the studio felt was already too long and inaccessible.)
Zodiac finds other clever and ironic ways to document the dead years that follow, like Toschi attending a screening of Dirty Harry, which feature a Zodiac-like villain named “Scorpio.” (“That Harry Callahan did a hell of a job with your case,” someone taunts.) But one of the remarkable elements of the film is how urgent the case remains for the three men still in pursuit, especially Graysmith, who dashes around in a panic after each game-changing discovery. Never mind that thousands of days have passed since anyone heard from the Zodiac; he’s suddenly back to being a killer on the loose, America’s Most Wanted. There’s even a sequence where Graysmith and Toschi return to the same San Francisco street corner in 1977, eight years after the Zodiac gunned down a cab driver. As dazzling as Zodiac is in the early going, when the killer is active and Fincher takes the city’s quickened pulse, it’s the film’s documentation of these fallow years that sets it apart from other procedurals of its kind.
At this point, pursuing the Zodiac is an odd obsession, fodder for the true-crime hobbyists, yet the film understands—and shares—that impulse. And the truth is, the motives of the men still on the hunt, Graysmith and Toschi especially, aren’t terribly heroic. They’re not driven by some burning desire to find justice for the victim’s families or anything so noble; it’s just an itch they can’t keep themselves from scratching, or to use a more pertinent metaphor, a puzzle they won’t give up trying to solve. And when faced with a mass of contradictory evidence, they’re sometimes guilty of cherry-picking only those pieces that support their current theory. In one terrific scene late in the film, Graysmith visits a friend of a victim who appeared to know the man who killed her. The friend talks about a creepy guy who once went to a painting party thrown by the victim, but she couldn’t quite remember his name, except that it was one syllable. Graysmith gives her the name “Rick,” she rejects it, and he keeps on insisting that she’s remembering it wrong, right up to the point where she settles on “Leigh,” as in Arthur Leigh Allen, the chief suspect to this day.
In a brilliant piece of irony, the most suspenseful sequence in the entire film turns out to be a red herring, with the panic induced mainly by Graysmith’s overactive imagination. Pursuing the theory that the killer was Rick Marshall, projectionist at a silent-movie house who surely would have known about the 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game, about a man who hunts human prey, Graysmith finds himself in home of Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a Marshall associate. Graysmith is operating under idea that a) Marshall designed a poster in handwriting that could match the Zodiac’s and that b) he lived in one of the rare California homes with a basement. When Graysmith discovers that it’s Vaughn himself who meets those criteria, the scene suddenly goes white-knuckle; I can remember wanting to crawl under my seat the first time I saw it. But watching a second time through, with full knowledge that the Marshall/Vaughn theory is a dead-end, the suspense is mostly generated by Graysmith’s panic over a strange but perfectly benign old cineaste.
The end of Zodiac finds Michael Mageau, the surviving victim of the July 4 attack we see in Vallejo, identifying Allen’s picture in a line-up of driver’s license photos more than 20 years after the crime. It’s the closest the film can come to providing some kind of resolution to an unsolved case, and just last weekend, Corey Starliper, a 27-year-old from Massachusetts, came forward with the claim that he’d solved a 340-character cipher that no one had been able to crack—and that it explicitly identified Allen as the killer. (This revelation was not well-received by the authorities, who had long discounted Allen based on handwriting samples and a passed lie-detector test.) But there’s a difference between following through on a theory and reaching a definitive conclusion, and Zodiac, despite its coda, feels as distinctly haunted and unsettled going out as it does in the preceding two and a half hours. Those of a certain disposition will continue to live with it.
August 18: Inside (L’Interieur)
September 8: Shaun Of The Dead
September 22: Black Dynamite