Just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it’s not true.
—Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Zodiac
The first question one might consider on Zodiac’s release is why a director as dynamic and visionary as David Fincher would choose to revisit the serial killer movie; a sub-genre that the outstanding Seven (1995) effectively rendered rather redundant just over a decade ago. Spawning a wealth of weak imitations, Seven’s status is such that it stands up as one of the definitive movies of this ilk, and is arguably one of the most exhilarating genre-pictures of the last couple of decades.
It is thriller of such extraordinary economy that, rather than branching out its conclusion to bring into play hitherto unconsidered factors, it was brought to a close by a starling act of provocation—giving its killer a dramatic conclusion to his opus of suffering and the audience one of the most memorable endings in film history. There was no final pursuit or red herring and, whilst time played a factor, there was no race against the clock. It was all wrapped up with the perpetrator’s hands literally tied.
Zodiac, based on a real investigation, dwells on the procedural nightmares of a drawn-out, far-flung murder hunt where motive is absent. Three separate actors fill the half-seen Zodiac killer’s shoes in the murder sequences. Unlike Seven, whose murderer wanted consistency, finality, and to be ultimately known—and thus whose audience were promised (dis)closure—Zodiac’s killer constantly evades capture and later lays claim to a number of crimes he, seemingly, did not commit. The replication of reality it seems is rather more complex and, although contrasting in tone and focus, Zodiac is a comparably impressive accomplishment. Perhaps it’s a case of another decade, another David Fincher reinvention of the thriller.
Zodiac trades as heavily on its superb aesthetic realisation as Seven did with its landmark visual stylings. Seven brilliantly captured urban isolation and fear without specifying its location. Zodiac prides itself on capturing a city, San Francisco, which has long since evolved. Set between the years 1969 and 1983 (with a postscript identification taking place in 1991), it evokes the period partially with its remarkable use of digital technology.
Recent advances facilitate the convincing reconstructions: Zodiac was shot using the state-of-the-art Viper digital camera, its images stored and manipulated on hard drives. Thus, Fincher is found utilising processes which would have seemed unimaginably absurd during the era depicted; an era in which detectives are shown to be hindered by their inability to communicate information effectively (when the first murders occur even fax machines have yet to become commonplace). One bravura sequence follows a cab with a bird’s eye view of the city, which demonstrates the skilfully manipulated CG work and recalls the now all too familiar imagery of popular computer game, Grand Theft Auto.
Crucial to the success of the film is the casting of the three leads. Each character is pulled into the investigation for very different reasons: intrigue; the chance for fame; professional responsibility. Jake Gyllenhaal has one of the most haunting faces in modern cinema; that of an overgrown child, at once both world-weathered and innocent. As Robert Graysmith (on whose book this is based) his refreshing lack of cynicism—almost inexplicable considering his profession here as a satirical cartoonist—means he has no conception of how the macabre could be perceived as “good business” for those who report on it.
Robert Downey, Jr. as his occasional companion, the reporter Paul Avery, is a shambolic drunkard and egotist, though delightfully deadpan and seeped in 70s sartorial cool. At first dismissing Graysmith as a “retard” and chiding him for “looming”, he is impressed by his colleague’s code breaking nous and flair for piecing together evidence. Yet despite these personal relations, it is not a film that purports to be a character study.
The third character of significance, Mark Ruffalo’s Detective Dave Toschi, is only superficially explored (he likes animal crackers, he has a relaxed approach to imparting confidential information), and Avery himself all but disappears well shy of the film’s climax, when inebriation takes a destructive hold. Instead, this is a film which presents us with sympathetic and diverse characterisations; men whose contrasting responses and motivations we can focus on amidst the lengthy (reflected in its 157 minute running time), frequently obfuscated investigation, whose personal interests in the case wax and wane out of synchronicity.
The awkward fire and ice duos of Fight Club and Seven are replaced in Zodiac by a triumvirate of leads who are less a band of brothers and instead three disparate, somewhat alienated, individuals drawn together in vague association by the compiling of evidence—pointing first this way, then that—collecting pieces of their own jigsaws which rarely seem will form a cohesive whole. Although it teases us with a series of potential break-throughs, Zodiac wears its frustrations on its sleeve and an overarching futility presides. Fincher’s aforementioned masterworks bristled ferociously and hurtled inexorably toward their shock but eventually satisfying conclusions. With them it was all about the ending. In Zodiac, an end to this particular puzzle is by no means an inevitability.
Despite a taut, exciting first half hour or so, which largely adheres to genre conventions, by embracing the restrictions of its source, Zodiac ultimately and quite deliberately feels like a film going nowhere and taking its own sweet time to get there. And yet every moment of its running time is absolutely compelling and stunningly rendered. With the exception of the almost impossible to make-out closing captions (which divulge crucial case-related information), it transfers impeccably to the small screen.
It is a remarkable feat to make a thriller which starts off energetic and eventful and, as the capture of the killer becomes increasingly less likely and the crimes more infrequent and disconnected, it appositely loses some of that pace, with only Gyllenhaal’s maniacal, all-encompassing, obsession carrying it to its conclusion. This reverse pacing is not to its detriment. Instead of a high-octane thriller, Fincher has given us an oft melancholy piece; reflecting (though it never explicitly considers) the loss of life. Bonds are fleetingly forged then broken, comradeship and honour are largely absent and, like the Zodiac himself, everyone emerges as a rather lost and damaged soul.