David Fincher’s 2007 true crime saga is an overlooked masterpiece.
Released in March of last year to warm but not rave critical reviews and a tepid box office reception, David Fincher’s Zodiac nevertheless offers possibly the most precisely-executed police procedural of the decade. It’s a haunting film not just about catching the bad guy or punishing the evil but is instead a character-rooted, deeply emotional tale of crime and the human cost of crime on both the victim and those who pursue the wrongdoer. That it’s meticulously based on a harrowing true series of events only makes its narrative and its broad ensemble of fine performances all the more resonant. For film noir fans, crime movie enthusiasts, or just those who enjoy good period pieces, it’s simply umissable cinema.
Beginning in 1968 and lasting through the Seventies, San Francisco and its surrounding environs were terrorized by a serial killer who typically preyed on couples alone in deserted areas, committing savage attacks that included elaborate costuming and even hastily-scrawled messages left at the scene. The killer, who called himself “The Zodiac” in postcards and letters mailed to local newspapers, taunted authorities with elaborate coded messages he defied experts to decypher. Though investigators from several police and sheriff’s departments spent years running down thousands of clues, ultimately his identity was never conclusively proven, passing into the realm of legend and endless debate. To this day confessions and leads continue to appear, so much so that the San Francisco Police Department has reopened the investigation.
Downey Jr., Gyllenhaal co-star as investigators Avery, Graysmith
Fincher’s film moves according to a delicately balanced tone, and in creating the Bay Area at the end of the 60s he emphasizes the dark edges of a region for whom the Summer of Love was already dead and gone. The marvelous set piece that opens the film moves at a deliberate pace that both establishes the terrible nature of Zodiac’s crimes and explains why the hunt for his capture would reach such desperate lengths in the months to come. This first attack, as with the later depictions, are not shown as sexy, stylized, or maudlin. They are swift and brutal, leaving the audience not scared or titillated but instead serve to provoke a moral response: repulsion, dismay, horror.
Yet the sequence is just prelude for the main segment of the narrative, which depicts the long and tortured investigation that suffered setback after maddening setback. When the Zodiac’s coded messages arrive at the San Francisco Chronicle, they attract the attention of star reporter Robert Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Graysmith, a former Eagle Scout and amateur cryptographer, finds himself both fascinated and repelled by the Zodiac killings, while the self-destructive Avery sees a momentous story.
Edwards, Ruffalo as Inspectors Armstrong, Toschi
Meanwhile Zodiac strikes again and again, including an unforgettable daylight attack on the shores of a tranquil lake in which he appears as a hooded executioner, binding and viciously stabbing a young couple. Weeks later, the murder of a San Francisco taxi driver is assigned to SFPD Inspectors David Tosci and William Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, both excellent). The two are dedicated, intelligent, methodical. (Toschi was an inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character and the visual model for Steve McQueen’s portrayal of Bullitt.) Together with police officials from neighboring areas (played with muted reserve by Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, and others), the two detectives slowly begin amassing a library of circumstantial evidence yet always come just short of discovering the one, case-breaking clue. Zodiac, it seems, was smart enough to strike in areas of overlapping or poorly-defined police jurisdiction, so coordination and communication lags – the attacks occur just as the fax machine was becoming available - slow their respective efforts.
This is the Zodiac speaking: Lynch as suspect Arthur Leigh Allen
They come closest when interviewing refinery worker Arthur Leigh Allen, a lumbering hulk of a man who appears helpful but subtly taunts the inspectors by flaunting a Zodiac wristwatch and boots that match treadmarks taken from an early attack. Actor John Carroll Lynch (Fargo, Waking The Dead) is brilliantly economical in depicting Leigh – whom the real-life Graysmith and detectives believe was Zodiac – as an unassuming but inwardly arrogant figure with just enough edginess to be the sociopathic murderer. “I’m not the Zodiac, and if I were I certainly wouldn’t tell you,” Leigh tells the detectives with glacial calm. A search of his squalid house trailer reveals nothing, compelling the inspectors away from the man they feel certain is the killer.
Ultimately, however, the pursuit of the case fell on Graysmith’s shoulders alone, despite repeated discouragement from colleagues, his bosses at the Chronicle, Avery, and later his loving but frustrated wife (Chloe Sevigny). Graysmith wrote the two books that serve as the film’s inspiration, and Fincher narrows the camera time given to each investigator until only Graysmith remains, often chasing dubious leads. A final set piece, set in the creaking basement of an informant’s house, twists the oldest of suspense movie tropes by using it for a visual metaphor for Graysmith’s obsessive search. Despite a ruined marriage, suffering career, and estranged children, his motivation is explained in the simplest terms. “I want to look him in the eyes, and I want to know,” Graysmith explains late in the film. It’s a sentiment extended by implication to all the investigators who bend or break procedure to help his search.
The Code Breakers: Downey, Jr., Gyllenhaal
James Vanderbilt’s script connects the various set pieces together with dialogue-driven scenes that establish the characters while serving to display the slow procession of time. A leap of several years is shown by the time-lapsed construction of the Transamerica Pyramid building, a San Francisco landmark. True to real events, characters drop out of the investigation, get reassigned, or meet with career setback or other difficulty. When at the end of the film Allen remains free, guilty in the minds of those consumed by his pursuit but not by any official court, the resolution feels oddly fitting given their lonely efforts.
I am Paul Avery: Downey, Jr.
In a movie about human frailty and cruelty, the actors have to carry the drama, and the marvel of Zodiac is not the superb cast itself but rather how many of them capably perform when cast diametrically against type. There’s no reason to think frequent indie and romantic comedy star Ruffalo would work as the man who inspired Steve McQueen’s most memorable role, yet Ruffalo owns the part. As noted above, Lynch is a revelation as the benignly terrifying Allen. Gyllenhaal reportedly struggled with his part during shooting, but the vulnerability he brings to Graysmith gives the viewer an emotional focal point. Finally, Downey, Jr. is pitch-perfect as the debauched, imploding Avery, evoking alternate but equal amounts of sympathy and frustration from the viewer. If you thought his performance as Iron Man’s Tony Stark was clever and multifaceted, he’s even better here.
There’s a sense throughout that Fincher guided his actors but did not control them, so that each naturalistic performance becomes a part of the greater whole. That understated approach, the discipline to get out of the film’s way, allows Zodiac to tell a sprawling, complex story without getting bogged down in ”hey look at me” stylization. Like Quiz Show, or Serpico, the story is allowed to speak for itself and make a deeper point than mere directorial style. In that way, it’s a film that leaves you thinking not just about the events presented – and they’ll stay in your mind for some time – but about the very potential of film itself to relate human events.
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