David Fincher’s Zodiac effectively encapsulates the massive manhunt for the serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area from the 60s through the late 70s. His theatrical villainy would seem borne out of a dime store comic if it weren’t so hideously real: Aside from his random acts of butchery, the Zodiac drew a giddy thrill from taunting the cops and reporters on his trail by sending them a series of complex ciphers. These codes contained cryptic clues, possibly to throw his pursuers off the trail or to lure them closer. In any case, the Zodiac benefitted from a combination of procedural snafus, departmental miscommunication, and flat-out luck as he eluded capture for decades. Over time, his mystery grew into a mythology, until he would become our most famous uncaught killer. Zodiac is an intelligent, passionate attempt to shed light on this monster in the shadows.
The film begins in 1969, with the Zodiac’s first kill. He harasses and shoots a lover’s lane couple (Lee Norris & Ciara Moriarty), but the boy survives. Soon, a package arrives at the San Francisco Chronicle. The sender identifies himself as “Zodiac,” and threatens to kill a dozen more people if the paper doesn’t publish the cipher contained in the letter. This sets up the dynamic between the killer and the people who hunt him: The thrill of murder isn’t enough for Zodiac. He likes to strut.
At the Chronicle, the investigation into Zodiac couldn’t fall onto two more different people. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) lives in a fog of sarcasm and cigarettes, with a pronounced streak of vanity mixing into his obvious journalistic talent. On the other hand, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an introverted brainiac who vanishes in crowded rooms. The Chronicle‘s cartoonist, Graysmith displays a knack for cracking Zodiac’s ciphers. Over time, Avery and Graysmith form an alliance that’s both supremely awkward and surprisingly fruitful.
On the law enforcement side, two key figures also emerge. Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) becomes the most famous detective associated with the case. Resourceful and level-headed, Toschi spends much of the film wading through a thicket of conflicting evidence, disappearing witnesses, inter-departmental squabbles, and suspects who don’t add up. Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) is Toschi’s partner, one of the few people who realizes this is a dense, frustrating case that could spiritually break most of the people involved.
The film blends the cops and reporters into a narrative hybrid, one that draws strong inspiration from All the President’s Men. Fincher has cited its influence on his work, and the parallels couldn’t be more clear: Avery is the high-strung, shambling genius, a la Carl Bernstein. With his clean-cut naïveté, Graysmith is a stand-in for Bob Woodward. Toschi plays Deep Throat, the low-key informant who keeps the cops in the loop, while also trying to stay out of trouble. Fincher also goes to great lengths to show meticulous grunt work necessary in a case like this, as lead investigators pore over documents, re-interview witnesses, and exhaustively rule out possibilities in their search for the culprit. As with All the President’s Men, progress comes in inches, not yards, and dedication is a huge factor for success. (Fun fact: Composer David Shire supplies the atmospheric score for both films.)
As for the killer, Fincher only allows him a brief, grisly, presence in the film. Two victims survived his savagery, and those crime scenes get recreated in fine detail. When Zodiac appears, he’s either masked or cloaked in shadows. As bodies and clues begin to mount, we feel a growing dread that this monster could be anybody anywhere. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt zero in on one of the more famous suspects, and present a convincing case this was the actual guy. Of course, they’re leaning hard on a trove of circumstantial evidence, while some real evidence kinda rules him out. Plus, modern sleuths have found a different prime suspect as the Zodiac. Either way, true crime fans can go on a deep dive and make up their own minds.
Hell, if you are a true crime fan, Zodiac is essential viewing. Fincher gives us an intense, exhaustive look at the hunt for a truly horrific individual. This is such a well-made, provocative film, it actually inspired the authorities to reopen the case. It remains that way still. Maybe Zodiac died. (Fincher’s prime suspect passed in 1991.) Maybe he was clever enough to creep back into the darkness and gleefully watch the world chase dead ends. Either way, Zodiac doesn’t pretend to have firm answers. It just proves the questions are still worth asking.
157 min. R. Pluto TV.