Among a plethora of skillful thrillers about repeat offenders in the realm of mass murder, David Fincher’s “Zodiac” has easily become the benchmark of the modern era: a ringing endorsement of a standard in which identity doesn’t have to be the anchoring facet in a narrative about answers to fatal mysteries, because the hysteria he instills can become its own beast. In that regard, the movie (and its source material) seem to echo the sentiments of the famous Jack the Ripper case, one of the most legendary of unsolved mass killings. But unlike most films about the Ripper that have theoretical slants, this one chooses to only suspect who might be the culprit, and never comes right out to offer a decisive conclusion. For Fincher, the mood of the premise is made all the more riveting by the ambiguity of details, driven further by the notion that all the realities come cascading off the screen in a torrent of dramatic prowess. This is a film about the relationship between a killer with the press that must offer him fame, and how both of them work within a volatile structure as police attempt to close in on… who can say?
The movie opens in 1969, on the eve of the first of many killings. Two young lovers in Vallejo park at a quiet spot on a summer night to exchange youthful flirtation, and are unnerved by the presence of a car that slowly circles back and forth. At one tragic point, a shadowy figure emerges and shoots them; the young boy, miraculously, survives. The culprit doesn’t bother with just disappearing into the night, either; he calls the police, informs them of the murders, and suggests that more will be coming. The next day, a letter arrives on the doorstep of The San Francisco Chronicle taking responsibility for the deaths, perplexingly signed with the moniker of the “Zodiac.” What does he hope to achieve by appealing to the newspaper? If he is well versed in the history of the Ripper, he knows that the most notorious of serial killers are made so by the sensationalized endorsement of the media. The letter does not bother sugar-coating his points, either; it warns that if his confession is not printed as front page news, then more killings will happen as a result, inevitably because he requires more “slaves in the afterlife.”
Letters continue as new killings emerge, sometimes with clues (like pieces of a blood-stained shirt) included in the envelopes to validate claims. The paper and local law enforcement are quick to react, usually without always cooperating with one another. At the Chronicle, the bulk of the details are filtered through the reporting of Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a hotshot who drinks too much, has no filter, and sometimes editorializes his content in order to get a rise out of the man who writes in with all sorts of graphic riddles. A pair of practical cops – Dave Tosci (Mark Ruffalo) and Will Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) – attempt to piece together the clues in hopes that prospective leads will emerge, even though many of the critical details are already public knowledge. Silently, each system hopes to compete against the other in discovering the killer’s real identity, and their acknowledgment of that is revealed in exchanges between Avery and Tosci that play like colleagues always trying to one-up the other by showing off their latest prizes. But the certainty of their conviction is, alas, undermined further when Paul is threatened by the killer, and subsequent clues get lost in the mad shuffle (or worse yet, pan out to nothing substantial).
Months of wonder turn into years; new killings dwindle, and written confessions decline (as does general interest in them). The figureheads of the investigation move on to more productive pastures, but one man at the Chronicle – a cartoonist named Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) – quietly pushes on, his fascination of the case turning him into an amateur sleuth of sorts obsessed with impractical odds. If this facet sounds at all familiar, it’s probably because Graysmith’s motivation seems directly inspired by that of the two leads in “All the President’s Men,” who too were obsessed with doing the right thing on the trail of a gargantuan government controversy that no one else was willing to stick with. The very impracticality of it all seems to be one of the more magnetizing facets for some movie personalities, and yet Robert’s underlying motivation is stirred, perhaps, by more peripheral observations. He is an avid enthusiast, for example, of puzzles; when the Zodiac sends out a code to crack, he is the first to offer a noble endeavor at solving it. Later, it is also he who is able to piece together vague coincidences into prospective leads (one of the more crucial: an observation that the killer directly quotes “The Most Dangerous Game” in his early letters, which results in a later attempt at discovering who was working projectors at local movie houses). Oftentimes some of his endeavors lead the movie down paths that are either insignificant or dead-ended, but of course it does; since it is the nature of all aspiring investigators to follow up on even the most pointless of leads, it goes to show the depth of the screenplay that Graysmith’s antics are followed with stalwart consistency. And from the narrative perspective, a case as strange as that of the Zodiac is not going to be harmed further by the notion of a movie considering all the angles.
It’s no small work of fate that David Fincher, one of the most consistently successful directors of the last two decades, came to dealing with this material. A master of noir sensibilities who infuses his approach with overreaching technical dexterity, his most notable endeavors have dealt primarily with the underbelly of the eroded psyche. His great “Seven” was almost ear-splitting in that sensibility, while “The Game” and “Fight Club” brought it to a whole new level of visceral anguish. Though the progression of his work has heralded the arrival of new perspectives (including the bizarre “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), the primary crux always comes down to the fact that tragedy becomes inevitable in a world that must operate in the shadows. Consider the driving force of “The Social Network,” for example, or the way tensions are framed in “Panic Room.” These ideas arrive at the peak of their possibility through a dramatic use of steep camera shots, corrosive edits and minimalistic soundtracks that focus the point right back to the characters, who may be well-intentioned but often don’t realize the problems they invite by trying to stray from the routine.
So much of that effect in “Zodiac” is influenced by the actors, most of whom play through the material with all the frustration and discomfort that comes with one’s professional attachment. Gyllenhaal, a fairly stoic talent on screen, does some especially tricky legwork as the quiet Robert; though the focal points are so clearly set at a distance, his quirks and mannerisms have the delivery of a focused professional, and our interest in him is well placed long before the movie makes it clear just how much the third act needs him. Downey Jr. operates well within the confines of his widely-known screen charisma, and Ruffallo, often a good counterpoint to scene-stealers, holds his own by being deadpan as a practical good guy just looking for the right answers. The irony is that even though their destinies must inevitably converge, not a single one of them gives into the exhaustion. The movie is sure to send them on many wild goose chases throughout the lengthy 157-minute running time (through interviews with suspects, testimonies from handwriting experts, clues left behind in notes, random names thrown out as decoys, and so on), but all the same these are men and women who believe in the conviction of their director, and stick with it till the final frames of a lengthy journey into the dark lair of a faceless beast.
Robert’s theory, which provides the basis for this movie (as well as a very informative book), is substantiated by details that are the equivalent of hairs being raised on the back of your neck; some play as minor observations, others as details that add to a single portrait, all of them backed up primarily by gut instincts that were lost on investigating officials. Are they usually circumstantial? Of course they are. But “Zodiac” absolves itself of structural reasoning, because it involves a case where the dynamics must undermine procedure. Towards the end, the obsessed cartoonist is asked implicitly: “why are you so motivated to find this man?” His response: “I have to look into his eyes, and know it is him.” And so the movie follows that principal quietly through an assemblage of suspicious circumstances, all while an unknown homicidal mind engages his audience in a perverse display of power in the thick of an already restless police operation.
Inevitably the movie arrives at a moment where Robert must confront the figure he truly believes is the killer, but the movie does something wise with his moment: it emphasizes the exchange between two faces without a single word of spoken dialogue. Is this the person behind the Zodiac identity? The answer will come down to how you perceive the material: as a law enforcer like Dave, or as a man who works on intuition like Robert. In both cases, the perspectives are woven into a story of impeccable detail and a film of gargantuan technical ambition, and Fincher brings it all to a rousing close in a moment that must exist for the sake of inspiring foreboding wonder. We may never know who Zodiac really was, but his crimes are a projection of more universal sensibilities; namely, that such mayhem almost always defies reasoning, and there is no such thing as a fitting justice for the tragic loss of human life.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Crime/Thriller (US); 2007; Rated R; Running Time: 157 Minutes
Jake Gyllenhaal: Robert Graysmith
Mark Ruffalo: David Toschi
Anthony Edwards: William Armstrong
Robert Downey Jr.: Paul Avery
Brian Cox: Melvin Belli
John Carroll Lynch: Arthur Leigh Allen
Chloe Sevigny: Melanie
Elias Koteas: Sgt. Jack Mulanax
Produced by Cean Chaffin, Brad Fischer, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Louis Phillips and James Vanderbilt; Directed by David Fincher; Written by James Vanderbilt; based on the book by Robert Graysmith