Zodiac (2007) Dir. David Fincher
I’ve watched this movie three times so far, each time more fascinated than before. It reigns both as a serial killer film and David Fincher’s production.
The movie is divided into two interchanging investigations: police and journalistic. The Zodiac crimes are like full stops between each investigation. This formula works perfectly to give us all details and all sides of the story. And the story is the famous, or better infamous, Zodiac case: murders of mostly young couples spanning through the late 60s and 70s followed by letters to the editors of San Francisco Chronicle and other prominent newspapers. Up to this day, the case remains open, and the crimes along with the killer’s real identity unsolved. What David Fincher does is serving us a unique serial killer movie, trying to shed some light on the mysterious Zodiac killings.
The movie opens with an attack on a young couple, hanging out in a car on July 4, 1969 in Vallejo, CA. Accompanied by a lively music (“Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan), they’re shot several times. After this atmospheric opening, we move to San Francisco Chronicle, where we meet the first important characters: Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a prominent journalist, and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a bit absent-minded cartoonist. They’re both going to play key roles in this long case. First, Avery becomes more important in unveiling the truth. Graysmith seems looming in the background for the time being. By the way, Avery is always reproaching Graysmith with his looming on Avery’s desk. Since the first Zodiac letter, Avery starts writing a series of articles about the killer. He gets deeper into the case, mixing in the police investigation, meeting an anonymous informer, even receiving threats from the Zodiac himself. What’s more important, he contrasts Graysmith. A popular and important journalist, Avery is respected, and his articles — opinion-forming. Graysmith, who at times appears desperate to become Avery’s partner, or at least his sidekick, is far from respected. Called a ‘retard’ behind his back, Graysmith is not expected to express his own opinion, not to mention solving the Zodiac riddles enclosed in the letters. Then, comes a moment when they switch places. With his life in ruins, Avery, already a heavy drinker, leaves the Chronicle. Graysmith, comes up with the idea to delve into the Zodiac case, gather all information, and write a book — his only way of coping with the gruesome, yet unsolved crimes.
Not before the first half an hour of the movie passes do we meet the other two characters. Two cops appear on the crime scene of a cab driver killing. Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who becomes involved in catching the Zodiac a little too much, and his partner, William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), who’s always equipped with a pack of animal crackers for Dave. This late night murder on the corner of Washington and Cherry begins Toschi’s obsession with the Zodiac. He talks the crimes through, disassembling them bit by bit. Thanks to that, no detail goes unnoticed, or left out. Plus, Toschi expresses an emotional approach. He cares for the victims, and involves himself deeper than other cops, deeper than his partner, who eventually doesn’t want anything to do with this case. Even after 20 years, Toschi still cares. Unconventially, he helps Graysmith in getting to the bottom of things. As a cop, he can’t give away any details — after all, the investigation’s under way — but he plays with words, saying: ‘…and I certainly can’t tell you…’ It’s all Graysmith needs to follow.
The movie is filled with obsession. Avery’s journalistic investigation, Graysmith’s book research, and Toschi’s police work are the main points of reference. We jump from one to the other. They perfectly complement each other like pieces in a witty puzzle. They follow the same leads, but choose different directions, and find out different things. Yet, their work is equally significant. Graysmith collects newspaper clippings about the Zodiac, most articles by Avery, of course. And, he “harasses” Toschi to prompt him. His determination costs him his marriage, but pays off — he looks the (probably) real Zodiac straight in the eyes, and finishes the book.
Zodiac dominates over other thrillers. Yes, it lacks fast-paced action, impressive car chases, choreographed fights, and loud explosions, but that’s actually a good thing. This movie works great without all that. They don’t distract us, masking what the movie really is about — and it’s about thorough investigations, obsessions taking over the characters’ lives, and grizzly murders. Fincher doesn’t go for the most obvious means to attract a wide range of viewers; instead, he builds up tension by giving us fascinating characters, and gradually revealing new information about the suspects.
What about the suspense itself? It’s there alright, and it’s quite intense. The killing sequences certainly contribute to that. As mentioned, the opening scene is the murder of a couple. The details from this case will actually be a little breakthrough towards the end. Each of the killings is shot with certain calmness that is almost uncanny. Apart from a song in the radio, there’s no background music. It’s clean and realistic. It’s shot at a close distance so we get an impression we’re at a hand’s reach from the victims and the Zodiac. One example is the killing of two college students by the lake. During the killing, there’s a closeup on their faces, especially the girl’s. The only sound are the thrusts of the Zodiac’s knife — quick, smooth, and clear sounds add both a sense of realism and perversion of the act.
My absolute favorite is the basement scene. Following another lead, Robert Graysmith meets with an eccentric man, Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), who claims to know who the Zodiac is. Late at night on a rainy day, naively, Graysmith agrees to visit Vaughn at home. The conversation between the two taking place in Vaughn’s darkish, unpleasant kitchen builds up tention enough for us to realize Robert shouldn’t perhaps stay in this house any longer. Once we’re on the edge of our seats, Fincher feeds our greatest fears, and takes us along with Robert to Vaughn’s basement. In this brilliantly shot, intense, gripping, and frightening scene, Fincher plays with shadows and darkness to make us cringe, and our skin crawl. The only emotions are expressed on Robert’s face. Vaughn’s face is covered in darkness. As for the creaking sounds, they’re ominous, especially when we realize we can’t explain them. Fincher scratches on the surface of horror genre. A rewarding scene indeed — the one we’ve been waiting for since the beginning. It gives me the creeps every time I watch it.
Apart from the main characters, we have a wonderful combination of police officers, journalists, and interesting female characters, who definitely add credibility. Captain Ken Narlow (Donal Logue), Sgt. Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas), or Captain Marty Lee (Dermot Mulroney) appear occasionally, but once they do, they’re convincing. The same goes for S.F. Chronicle staff. The meeting in the editorial concerning the Zodiac letters boil down to serious journalistic talk about the paper’s next move, how to handle a situation like that, and what it means for the paper. As for women, we don’t have many female characters, but at least one stands out: Melanie, Robert’s second wife. Nicely portrayed by talented Chloë Sevigny, Melanie offers a warm and pleasant contrast to the male characters, without resorting to cheap melodrama. Sevigny always delivers a spot-on performance.
Last but not least, there’s the Zodiac himself. The main suspect is Arthur Leigh Allen (why serial killers often have double names?). He’s flawlessly played by John Carroll Lynch, who frightens and repulses us. There’s nothing we might like about Leigh, as he’s called by friends and family. His demeanor and attitude, the way of speaking and looking, the very air around him scream he’s guilty. Yet, nothing’s as simple as it seems. The movie doesn’t ultimately accuse him of being the Zodiac, rather merely and suggestively finger points him as the most likely suspect.
You may watch Zodiac sitting safely on you sofa; however, you won’t feel safe once the movie ends. On the one hand, it’s very exciting and entertaining. On the other, it’ll leave you with a sense that the boogeyman is real, hiding around the corner when you come back late at night. Fincher confronts the unsolved Zodiac case with mastery, proving he doesn’t need to blow up things and kill people every 10 seconds to make a brilliant thriller. No other option — watch and enjoy!
Long days, pleasant nights,