It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind of cop work. Lots of late nights. Way too many cups of coffee. Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged.
Beginning in December of 1968 and ending in October of 1969, an unknown perpetrator terrorized the Northern region of the state of California, centering most of his activity in and around the San Francisco area. His were motiveless, random crimes – one couple would be shot while they parked, another would be stabbed as they picnicked near Lake Berryessa. As the investigations began, police and the newspapers started receiving letters from the fiend, along with elaborate ciphers that supposedly explained his rationales. It’s these heinous crimes that make up the basis for this film’s storyline, which also follows the involvement of reporter Paul Avery, cartoonist David Graysmith and police Inspectors William Armstrong and David Toschi.
In the hands of any other filmmaker, someone incapable of placing the darkness of the subject matter directly into every scene he or she puts on celluloid, this would be a magnified TV mini-series. We’d get the snippets of nastiness at the start, the fading film star taking on the daring lead role, and anticipate those little forced fade-outs announcing the next commercial break. But in the skilled cinematic grasp of the amazing David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), a case that pales in comparison to California’s other notorious Peace decade murder maelstrom - Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter spree – turns into a concrete reflection of its tenuous times. It uncovers the flaws in pre-technology crime solving while celebrating those willing to sacrifice their mental lives to overcome these investigative chasms.
The first thing Fincher does right is purely aesthetic. He so perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1960s/‘70s setting that you feel completely immersed in the time period’s patina and gloom. And it’s not just the details – the TNT 8 Track player, the viewmaster sitting on an old fashioned counsel television. No, what Fincher finds in the era between analog and digital, footwork and laptops, is the last legitimate signs of a post-War America. Sure, San Francisco is an amazing city, the backdrop for a hundred well-remembered movies. But here, the city’s not so much a character but a stand-in, a metropolitan mock-up waiting for the inevitable evil to start seeping in. From the first senseless killing (the aforementioned couple parked near an overpass) to the last crime we actually see (a cabbie being shot at point blank rage) death is the disease that begins the process of unraveling our slipshod social fabric.
Similarly, Fincher casts the film flawlessly. Looking – and indeed acting – like a young Chris Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo leaves behind an inconsequential career canon to deliver a true star making turn as Inspector David Toschi. With his hair piled into two shoddily parted slabs and a wardrobe that feels slept and perspired in, he’s the symbolic face of the law. He’s concerned. He’s confident. He’s sure that regular old police work will lead to a suspect – and the lack of one is eating him up inside. Every time Ruffalo delivers a line, it’s a lesson in multi-layered performance. No sentence is simple, each statement covered in concerns, fears and undeniable guilt. Also amazing is Robert Downey, Jr., playing the kind of cavalier jock journalist that would come to personify the decade’s Fourth Estate eminence. He’s the sort of reporter who does as much drinking and disagreeing as he does writing. He’s the first indirect victim of the story, a man made and unmade by what he knows – and by the pieces of evidence he doesn’t have.
Then there are the ancillary turns – takes on famous faces (Brian Cox’s brilliant Melvin Belli, a more or less forgotten name in the world of limelight legal personalities) and hardworking underdogs. All throughout Zodiac, Fincher features performers who meld seamlessly, never once coming across as too contemporaneous or outside the era. He’s working off iconography – providing as many human as thematic symbols to illustrate his ideas. Toward the end, when Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s Charles Fleischer shows up as a potential suspect, his one time comedic craziness makes a perfect starting point for what ends up being one of the more sinister performances in the entire film. Fincher gets a lot of legitimizing specificity out of these smallish, insignificant roles. They keep Zodiac from slipping into standard, by the book docudrama.
But the real work is put in by Jake Gyllenhaal. His is indeed the hardest part to play. At first, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith is nothing more than a fly on an already filthy wall. He wants desperately to be part of the editorial process, to add what little knowledge he has to the overall reportage of the case. But as an outsider looking in, he is kept at a distance, and this is a risky move for both actor and auteur. For Gyllenhaal, it makes his third act transformation into a sort of ersatz private eye (Graysmith actually existed, and wrote two books upon which the movie is based) a tricky twist to sell. As for Fincher, it needs to feel liquid and inevitable. Such a shift in personal point of view is always difficult for a director, but in the case of Zodiac, we are dealing with a cold case, no real substantive suspects, and a previous path strewn with equally concerned casualties. Turning a hanger-on into a hero is a tough task to accomplish, but Fincher finds a way to make it work. As a matter of fact, the last half of the film is far creepier than the blood and body scattered opening.
This is indeed a directorial tour de force for the moviemaking maverick, a perfect combination of engaging storyline and intriguing style. Fincher loves to look at life through a distorted, twisted lens, and he employs his signature visual variety here. There are certain shots that just bowl you over with their beauty (a tracking shot which follows a cab on its fateful fare, a look at Gyllenhaal’s car crossing the Golden Gate Bridge) while others announce their intention with obvious conceptualization (the time-lapsed construction of the Transamerica Pyramid to mark the passage of time). Still, it’s the way he handles specific scenes that are the most impressive. When the police finally narrow their focus to a man named Arthur Leigh Allen, his interrogation in a factory’s employee break room absolutely sizzles with squalid suspense. Indeed, much of Zodiac crackles with a kind of corrupt electricity, an overriding feeling of discomfort that makes even the conversations between couples ache with an aura of unease. Even at more than 158 minutes, the movie still feels rushed and ready, always on the brink of breaking under its own sustained stress.
There will be those who bemoan said run time, who recognize the non-ending ending the movie manufactures (we wind up with a theory, but no real closure) and simply shout “sell out!”, but that would really be missing the point. Zodiac was never designed as a whodunit. The clues are not clear enough, and the facts more faded than the memories of the people who survived the killer’s slapdash attacks. Fincher never intends a conclusion. Instead, Zodiac is a clever commentary, a look back at how careless and confounding the criminal justice system could be. A modern audience may scoff at how Toschi’s partner William Armstrong (an extremely solid Anthony Edwards) must maneuver through four different jurisdictions and his own internal red tape just to coordinate the evidence, but that’s the way it was back then. Crime was considered local, and even the most celebrated cases played more importantly to the surrounding constituency. It’s also the reason why they call serial killers the first post-modern murderers. It requires contemporary thinking – and techniques – to stop their reign of terror.
But as Fincher so masterfully reminds us, there was no snarky CSI to save us back then. Convictions were built from the circumstantial inward. Even before the closing credits, the film lets us know that certain facts that we feel are incontrovertible have been placed in substantial doubt by computer matching and DNA testing. But since Fincher’s not trying to find the killer, we really don’t care. Instead, we are mesmerized by a movie that takes its time explaining the impact that fear and frustration have on those assigned to bringing the bad guys to justice. When Ruffalo walks away after his final meeting with Gyllenhaal, the look of peace on his face is genuine. Similarly, when Graysmith finds Allen, all he wants is to keep a promise he made to himself and his wife. Unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK, that hoped to unravel the contradictory conclusion of the Warren Commission to suggest another theory on the assassination of the President, Fincher is fine with Zodiac remaining an enigma. Besides WHAT he was had more of an impact on everyone involved than who he was.