There’s a serial killer on the loose and David ‘Se7en’ Fincher is in the director’s chair. We all know how this one’s going to turn out, don’t we? Yes, indeed: as a carefully drawn, low-key study of the effects of the crimes on the policemen, reporters and periphery players, their lives and their families.
Anyone hoping for Se7en II — is that Ei8ht or Fou14een, do you think? — will be disappointed but they will be the only ones. Besides, if you’re actually hoping for more decapitated A-list actresses and razor-blade dildos then your problems are slightly greater than a disappointing night in the cinema, you sick puppy, you. Put simply, Zodiac is Fincher’s best film to date. The tension is carefully measured so that on the two occasions it peaks, you will be dragged to the edge of your seat suddenly and unexpectedly and you will find yourself gnawing on your hand until it’s over. The rest of the time, there’s a deep sense of menace but it never detracts from the human issues at the story’s heart.
Zodiac was the name a serial killer gave himself in his taunting letters to the press during his murderous spree in San Francisco in the late 60s and early 70s. To date, he has not been caught. To date, the police have pinned him with seven definite victims. Zodiac, however, claimed dozens more, stating that he’d made them look like routine robberies and accidents. The true figure then will probably never be known. Shortly after his first slayings, he wrote letters to three of the area’s papers: The San Francisco Chronicle; The Herald and the Vallejo Times-Herald. Each letter contained references to details that only the police or the killer would know, plus part of a coded message that the killer demanded be published on the papers’ front pages. Failure to do so would lead to more killings. Agreement to do so meant that Zodiac had the papers by the short and curlies.
At the Chronicle, cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) is in the meeting when the letter is opened. While he doesn’t solve the cipher — that honour falls to a crossword loving local couple — he works out that the killer is referencing a classic movie, and he becomes enthralled by the case. The other key figures in the investigation — detectives Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) plus Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Downey Jr, excellent as always) — become celebrities, but as the case remains unsolved for years and other issues creep in, their stars wane and their lives suffer. Only Graysmith — on whose book this is based — kept digging. But at what cost?
As mentioned above, this is Fincher’s best film to date, his most mature, pure cinematic experience. Se7en still hits like a 5 Wood to the temples, Fight Club still has that visceral quality that blokes in their 20s latch onto but, like Jackie Brown compared to Pulp Fiction, Zodiac clearly shows a director growing up. He’s still got the tricks but he’s also got the nous to leave alone when things demand and the confidence to let his cast shine as the case consumes them. Those are good tricks to learn and suggest greater depths than might have been anticipated from the director, a sense of subtlety that can take a high-profile murder case and turn it into a strange but compelling character study. A very good film indeed.
SECOND OPINION | Stuart O'Connor: This is not the first film to be made based on the infamous Zodiac — that honour goes to 1971's The Zodiac Killer — but it's fair to say Fincher's effort is probably the best. It's also fair to say that David Fincher has evolved into a very smart, mature filmmaker. Forget the flash of Fight Club and the grisly gore of Se7en, this is a quiet, considered study of an unsolved mystery — although the three murders we do witness are very nasty indeed.
This is not a film about the killings, or even the killer, per se; it's a film of how these events impacted on the lives — professional and personal — of the people involved in trying to solve the crimes. And the person on whom the killer has the biggest impact is the person you'd least expect — Robert Graysmith, an editorial cartoon for the San Francisco Chronicle. Perfectly portrayed by Gyllenhaal, Graysmith is a rather quiet, meek and thoughtful man who lets his obsession to uncover the killer's identity ultimately take over his life — more so that the police officers involved (Edwards, in a bad wig, and Ruffalo) and the Chronicle's police roundsman (Downey Jr). Long after these three have moved on, Graysmith is still plugging away, digging through old files, interviewing witnesses and survivors. All to no avail — the killer was never caught, and the case is unsolved to this day.
Zodiac reminds me a lot of Alan Pakula's All The President's Men. It beautifully evokes the era — rotary-dial telephones (just how did we cope before mobiles?), newsrooms full of smoke, typewriters and boxes full of paper rather than computers, a much slower pace of life — and never sensationalises or glamorises the events on which its based. Although there is no ultimate resolution, Zodiac is worth the trip just to see a master craftsman at work.