| March 3, 2007

Zodiac delivers a chronological retelling of the real-life investigation into a series of murders in the San Francisco Bay area in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The killer named himself Zodiac in one of many letters sent as a taunt to local newspapers, and his hubris proves legitimate–he was never caught. As a result, this film is less a “whodunit” than a probe into how the case destroys the lives of the men who investigate it.
David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) directs the film written by James Vanderbilt based on Robert Graysmith’s book of the same name. Graysmith was a cartoonist working at the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the murder spree, and he developed a personal obsession with finding the identity of the killer.
Portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, Graysmith is a slightly odd and somewhat innocent young man. He is constantly pushed aside by the more serious newspaper men at the office, and his persistence plays as youthful enthusiasm rather than dogged determination. The film spans several decades, but Fincher doesn’t attempt to age the baby-faced Gyllenhaal. Instead, he exploits Gyllenhaal’s youthfulness, contrasting it with Graysmith’s mental disintegration as his obsession with the Zodiac killer intensifies.
Graysmith is not the only man to lose himself in the case. Newspaper reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) descends into alcoholism and isolation, and lead detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) finds himself implicated in the crime in an unusual way. All of these men are equal parts outraged and intrigued by the arrogance of the Zodiac, but as he continues to elude them, they risk losing their jobs, families, and sanity.
At two and a half hours, Zodiac is a marathon, not a sprint. Those looking for suspense or thrills may be disappointed by the slow pace and lack of heart-stopping moments. Fincher recreates a number of the murders for which the Zodiac claimed responsibility, but these scenes are less about the “boo” factor than about examining the murderer’s cold and calculating demeanor.
There is no scene as horrifying as the famous “box” from Se7en, but in part that is because Fincher seems most interested in the horror of failing to capture such a bold and fame-seeking murderer. One of the most frightening moments of the film depicts Gyllenhaal pursuing his investigation into the home of a former movie theater employee. As he follows the man into his cave-like basement, the menace is palpable. But this scene ends up being a red herring–producing the most threat with little impact upon the storytelling. The Zodiac remains completely in the shadows of the film. Ultimately, Graysmith suggests one man as the culprit, but without an indictment or confession, this character remains a cipher.
Without a killer’s psychology to explore, Fincher turns his attention upon the men who pursue him. Yet even here, he keeps his distance. Fincher’s recreation of the crime is so detailed that the facts take up most of the screen time. Names and dates began to blend together, though, and I found myself having to trust the word of the characters each time they elaborated a new theory. Fincher’s meticulous chronological portrait seems excessive considering the typical payoff–unmasking the killer–is impossible. He finds a way to bring closure to his main characters, but for the audience, there is no dramatic climax.
Rather, the film ends with a weak anticlimax. For the first half of the film, Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith sits on the sidelines, curious but removed from the main investigation. Then at about the time the cops give up hope of finding the Zodiac, Graysmith becomes the primary actor in the film. The shift is abrupt. Fincher throws in a female character to become Graysmith’s wife, but poor Chloë Sevigny has so little screen time that she cannot challenge her husband with any believability and thus adds little tension.
This is a problem because I wanted to know why Graysmith loses himself so completely in the case. Is it hubris? Horror about the crimes? Righteous indignation that giving up the search is an inhuman insult to the dead? Graysmith’s big speech that he needs “to look the killer in the eye” sounds hollow, and the scene in which he sort of accomplishes this goal only proves how unsatisfying an ending this is.
But this film isn’t about the ending. Fincher creates a fascinating look inside police work in the days before email and readily-available fax machines. All the actors deliver believable performances, with Downey and Ruffalo as stand outs. In an interesting paradox, the film’s weakest structural challenge–never unmasking the killer–is also kind of the point. We may never understand what leads one person to murder another, but we will probably never stop seeking the answer.

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