Through the eyes of those who investigated the serial killer, Fincher fingers the Zodiac


on March 02, 2007 by Annlee Ellingson
A sprawling, unfocused film that nonetheless retains viewer interest due to arresting performances by a cast of indie heavyweights and the visual virtuosity of thriller auteur David Fincher, Zodiac centers on the still-unsolved case of the titular serial killer who terrorized San Francisco and surrounding Northern California communities for decades. The case commences at Christmastime in 1968, when a couple is shot to death on a remote lover's lane in Solano County. Six months later, on the Fourth of July, another couple is attacked, this time in Vallejo; the boy lives, but the girl dies. It's not until a letter with a secret code arrives at the San Francisco Chronicle and two other area newspapers, though, that the relationship between the two incidents is revealed when the author claims he is the perpetrator, later dubbing himself the Zodiac killer. More murders, more letters and more ciphers follow, and the hunt for the Zodiac becomes an obsession that overtakes and in some cases destroys the careers and personal lives of the cops and reporters working the case.

The serial killer thriller is familiar territory for Fincher, who first forayed into the genre in 1995 with Seven, about another mystery man whose murders held special meaning (this time centered on the seven deadly sins) and who taunted those in pursuit. Here, the quintessentially Fincherian camerawork by D.P. Harris Savides (Fincher's The Game ) adds an undercurrent of electricity to the frustratingly static case, without the flashy visual trickery that some complain detracts from his storytelling (no tracking shots through keyholes and coffee pots here). Particularly effective is the subtle masking of the Zodiac's identity over the course of several murder scenes and the moment the investigators first realize they are sitting face-to-face with what will become their prime suspect.

As Inspector Dave Toschi, the SFPD detective who has inspired the characters behind three career-making turns (Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, which was loosely based on the Zodiac case, Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Michael Douglas in the TV series The Streets of San Francisco ), Mark Ruffalo captures the vocal rasp and gruff energy of a homicide cop with an antithetical jones for kids' snack foods. Playing Toschi's gentlemanly partner Bill Anderson, who keeps the glove compartment stocked with animal crackers but eventually ankles the case, is Anthony Edwards. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast as the maniacal (ego- and otherwise) Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery, whose own meddling investigative techniques stick in Avery's craw.

At the heart of the story, though, is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the Chronicle cartoonist who, long after others have given up on it, resurrects the Zodiac case under the guise of writing a book on it. That the film centers on his investigation accounts for the film's lack of focus — it's not until an hour and 40 minutes have passed that he takes an active role and ceases “looming,” as Avery likes to complain, on the periphery of the case. Once he does, the disparate characters (including Toschi, Anderson and their counterparts in three other jurisdictions) and the evidence they have been collecting (but keeping from each other in a bid to solve the high-profile case themselves) start to come together. Portrayed with an easy likeability by Gyllenhaal, it's Graysmith's wide-eyed guilelessness that convinces the cynical cops to open their case files to him.

Although based on his books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, the movie offers something that Graysmith's true-crime thrillers don't — a glimpse at the author himself, whose reputation as a Boy Scout (“Eagle Scout, actually,” he corrects) provides fodder for newsroom mockery and whose fixation on the Zodiac costs him his marriage. What the onscreen portrayal also does is reveal his motivation and, by extension, the movie's themes.

“As an editorial cartoonist, you develop a strong sense of justice, a need to change things, and as a painter and cartoonist I worked with symbols every day,” Graysmith has written about why he first became interested in the case. More revealing is a late-act exchange between the character Graysmith and his wife (Chloe Sevigny), in which he admits, “I need to know who he is.” “Why you?” she asks. “Because no one else will.”

With the Zodiac killer still officially “at large” — the suspect Graysmith narrows in on died in 1992 — there can be no satisfying conclusion to the case or the movie. What's left is the attempt to find closure when no justice has been done. And, when the chasm between what one knows and what one can prove in court cannot be crossed, the case won't be solved by men in uniforms but by regular guys in a book or a film.

“Just because you can't prove it doesn't mean it's not true,” Graysmith says.

“Easy, Dirty Harry,” Toschi replies. “Finish the book.” Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas and Chloe Sevigny
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt
Producers: Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer, James Vanderbilt and Cean Chaffin
Genre: Thriller
Rating: R for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images
Running time: 156 min.
Release date: March 2, 2007

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