In the late 1960s, a killer calling himself Zodiac claimed responsibility for a series of murders in Northern California; he taunted investigators with a series of codes and clues sent to newspapers and made threats against the public that mostly freaked people out.
While there were a good deal of suspects, Zodiac was never brought to justice.
In 2007, director David Fincher decided to make a movie about this bizarre and grisly crime story starring Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle; Mark Ruffalo as the lead Inspector David Toschi; and Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the Chronicle (and if you pay attention to the credits, he wrote the book the movie is based on).
So, we know the beginning of the story already, and a quick Wikipedia search will reveal the ending, but how do you go about making a movie where all the suspense has been stripped out of the tale?
You do it by subverting expectations and taking a unique approach to true crime storytelling (and inserting suspense in whenever possible) and by showing the audience the toll of police work (either official or amateur).
“Zodiac” is not the story of a serial killer and how he outsmarted the cops; it’s the story of the frustrating, tedious and (at times) perilous search for a suspect in a murder investigation that spans decades. It’s an important distinction, and it’s the movie’s strength lies in how real it feels.
The plucky journalist doesn’t save the day by cracking the impossible code; the streetwise cop doesn’t beat the main suspect into confessing; there isn’t some piece of damning evidence overlooked that the cartoonist discovers in his obsessive search for answers.
Instead, we see the Chronicle editors and reporters deciding on whether to publish Zodiac’s manifesto (and kudos to the production staff for getting the look and feel of newspapers right). We see the cops diligently talking to witnesses, looking through clues, trying to coordinate between low-tech and underfunded police stations across the state. We see the case go cold, get hot four years later, and then finally stall out.
In a word, it’s brilliant. Fincher makes the bold choice to not be sensational (in fact, he only shows murder scenes when there was a witness to corroborate the details). Granted, the film is in two parts, and while the first part, which focuses on the confirmed Zodiac murders, is pretty slow, it’s not boring. The second half, which focuses on Graysmith’s painstaking amateur investigation, is probably superior, but it wouldn’t be as good without the rock-solid foundation built in the first half.
“Zodiac” is a movie that will ensnare you, if you have the patience to stick out an intellectual (as opposed to a shoot-em-up) crime thriller. There is no downside to this movie (the acting, directing, writing, editing, etc., are all excellent), and unlike other generic crime movies, this one lingers long after the haunting final shot ends.
For another take on “Zodiac,” check out Jim’s review.
Directed by David Fincher
Written by James Vanderbilt
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith)
Mark Ruffalo (Inspector David Toschi)
Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery)