Zodiacdirected by David Fincher from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt, is a 2007 historical crime drama that, in true Fincher fashion, painstakingly recreates the extensive manhunt for the Zodiac — a serial killer active in California throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s . With three high-profile stars and a slew of other talents in supporting roles, Zodiac is part period piece, part character drama and part police procedural. Newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith’s book documenting the Zodiac case, existing police files and over a year of research conducted by the production team all make the movie exceptionally believable — grounding it in period- specific detail and a particular fact-checked reality.
With all of these elements taken to their full potential, Fincher proceeds to shift the story’s emphasis from one individual killer to the overarching pop culture perception of serial killers as a whole. With two of the main three protagonists operating within the world of journalism — Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Robert Graysmith and Robert Downey Jr. plays reporter Paul Avery — Zodiac gradually starts to underscore the dangers of media exploitation, echoing the real-life frenzy that occurred over the killings. The resulting upheaval, egged on by print and TV media, greatly impeded the investigation. The modern American fascination with serial killers, apparent on various streaming platforms — notably Netflix — makes sense within the context of the Zodiac case. Fincher explores every facet of the story with patience and conviction, never letting this larger angle impede the movie’s suspense or drama.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo Tell a Story of Obsession
The movie’s three stars — the third one being Mark Ruffalo in the role of San Francisco Police Department Detective Dave Toschi — lends itself to an expansive story (especially since the film covers the entire investigation, which spanned several years and unfortunately remains unsolved) . The trio depicts with clarity and immersive talent the kind of toll that the case had on each of these men. For all its factual accuracy, the movie heavily dramatizes the working relationship between Graysmith and Avery, but this is a concession made for the sake of storytelling and pacing.
In the film, Ruffalo’s Toschi — who helps the audience see the story from an investigative, procedural perspective — goes through personal and professional hardships as a result of his work. Graysmith’s life unravels also, as his interest in the killings and the Zodiac’s true identity turns into a full-blown obsession, eventually ending his marriage. The movie gives Avery’s arc a different ending than what had happened in real life, but by the movie’s mid-point, adjustments like these are excusable because Zodiac is dedicated to its statement on pop culture and its strange relationship with serial killers. It also quickly becomes an unflinching deconstruction of paranoia and obsession.
David Fincher Briefly Uses Dirty Harry To Make an Important Point in Zodiac
After the San Francisco Chronicle (where Graysmith and Paul work) decides to publish a letter from the Zodiac, the proverbial snowball starts to roll, and the mysterious, lurid letters take on a life of their own. After the investigation is in full swing, told mostly through the perspective of Toschi and his partner Bill Armstrong (played by a stoic yet sympathetic Anthony Edwards), the concept of “Zodiac buttons” is briefly mentioned — something that the killer asked for himself, noting that all kinds of causes have their own lapel buttons. Melvin Belli, a prominent lawyer and actor, played by Brian Cox, is utilized in a few key scenes that further illustrate the increasingly blurred line between real-life tragedy and popular culture.
A fascinating scene, the first time Graysmith meets Toschi, takes place at a special SFPD screening of the 1971 Don Siegel movie Dirty Harry. The film’s villain, a serial killer named Scorpio, sends taunting letters to the city of San Francisco; the movie’s protagonist, Harry Callahan, is based on Toschi himself. A key line, delivered by Ruffalo in a simultaneously sarcastic and defeated tone, seems to summarize Fincher’s analysis of how pop culture ingests serial killers and the investigations they spawn: “Pal, they’re already making movies about it.”
Fincher and Harris Savides Depict a Desaturated World in Zodiac
Many things in Zodiac categorize it as a modern-day tragedy: many lives are ruined, and in the end, the killer is never caught. Seeing Gyllenhaal’s wide-eyed, haggard-faced Graysmith catch the obsession bug all the way, resolving to figure out the case virtually by himself, leads him to a rocky but eventually beneficial partnership with Toschi. Fincher, in his precise, measured way, has the camera hang on these characters’ faces, letting the audience take in the emotional damage of living one’s life around a constantly-shifting set of clues and circumstances. Cinematographer Harris Savides, who worked with Fincher on The Gamemakes use of a crisp, desaturated aesthetic that gives Zodiac its special look. One scene, with its tension, camera angles and general atmosphere taken straight from horror cinema, sees Graysmith follow up on a lead that may have some conclusive proof of the Zodiac’s identity.
It’s one of the most effective, tautly-paced scenes in the film. This mysterious elderly man is played by Charles Fleischer (perhaps best known for voicing the lead role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Fleischer makes the scene ooze with an increasingly uncomfortable aura of creepiness. This sequence also serves as a surprisingly meta understanding of how serial killers fit into modern fiction. Fincher accomplishes an amazing balancing act, telling a true-to-life story while embellishing and making good use of its more sensationalist elements. The movie ends in a vague, unfinished way, with a sense of incompleteness creeping up on the audience by the time the credits roll. In the end, Zodiac showcases a gallery of missing pieces, loose ends and unraveled lives while also acting as a case study of modern America’s obsession with serial killers.