David Fincher is one of the undisputed genius auteurs of modern cinema. Whether he’s tackling a mystery thriller like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or is taking a somewhat more philosophical bent with his rendition of Fight Club, Fincher has a grasp of tension and intrigue that many others in his field can merely grasp at. Today is the tenth anniversary of one of his best works, Zodiac, which takes the real world killings and investigation of the so-called Zodiac Killer and dramatizes them in a manner that seems unlikely to succeed under any other director’s influence.
Told in snippets of time ranging from the late 1960s through the 1970s, Zodiac follows the investigations of three men whose paths intersect and build upon one another: Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle; Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist at the same paper with an affinity for puzzles; and David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the lead detective assigned to the Zodiac case in San Francisco. What started as a series of letters taking claim for a couple of killings in the San Francisco area quickly escalated into a twisted game of media exposure and manipulation, in which a faceless killer shined a spotlight on his persona without ever giving himself away.
What’s amazing about Zodiac is that in retaining its historical accuracy it doesn’t retain a singular protagonist throughout its runtime, but instead lays out events as they were recorded in case files and in Graysmith’s book of the same title. This in turn allows for a wider scope that doesn’t make the film entirely about an investigative team’s struggle with their nameless antagonist, yet still allows the leading character actors to invest the film with personality and drive. Downey, Jr. continued his then-recent acting resurgence with his trademark off-kilter personality, which added some comic edge to the otherwise dead serious proceedings, yet also allowed him to demonstrate the stressful toll the case took on Paul Avery as the years went by. Gyllenhaal is arguably the weakest actor of the trio, but he gives one of the best performances of his career here, a combination of do-gooder sincerity and clueless disconnection that perfectly suits his off-putting screen presence. Ruffalo is the real star, though, as he portrays the complex struggle of a professional whose personal feelings on the case bubble just under the surface.
Even more than those three characters, though, Zodiac captures the essence of the Zodiac Killer through reputation and amazingly directed crime reenactments. Even when the victims survive, we never see the Zodiac’s face, nor does the film shy away from the brutal violence committed at the monster’s hands. This creates a sense of mystery and an ominous air that makes the killer seem greater than a mere human, as reflected by the constant media coverage that whipped San Francisco into a frenzy. But the most remarkable thing is that Fincher doesn’t fall to the temptation to wrap up the Zodiac story cleanly. The facts all line up to indicate that Arthur Leigh Allen was, in fact, the killer, and the revelation that he is the most likely suspect is the climax of the film, but the film never offers full confirmation, allowing the Zodiac to pass into legend even as we suspect that we know the truth. All the evidence may point in the same direction, but you can never quite escape the fact that it’s all circumstantial, making the Zodiac just that much more terrifying in its notoriety.
I could further explore how the film keeps a suspenseful tone that remains engaging for almost three staggering hours, or how Fincher somehow manages to make the tedium of handwriting analysis a point of continuous intrigue, but those are elements best left for experience rather than explanation. Zodiac may not be Fincher’s best or most popular film, but it demonstrates that even when a master is working with material as broad and complex as a historically accurate telling of the Zodiac investigation, he can produce something marvelous.