The idea of offering up a defence for David Fincher’s Zodiac seems rather silly given that ten years later it’s widely regarded as perhaps Fincher’s greatest film, often revered as one of the finer films released over the past decade. We all know it’s great, though admittedly, I didn’t know that for several years.
I avoided Zodiac like it was coated in radioactive slime until 2014. I had heard a great deal of positive things about the movie, and had been greatly intrigued by the marketing behind it, but the knowledge that not only was it was a long, slow paced movie, but also a rather unsettling one too kept me away for so long. When I did finally give it a chance late September 2014, my mind immediately gravitated toward Google, scouring through page after page of information about the investigation in an attempt to better understand the finer details of the case, and come to my own conclusions about who the Zodiac killer may have been. My gut however, felt like I’d eaten a bad take out meal, disturbed, shaken, and stupidly hungry for more. I felt like how I imagined Robert Graysmith felt all those years ago, minus the fear, paranoia, and impending danger of course.
That David Fincher populated Zodiac with such a great cast is a marking of a great director who knows how to compile actors who will treat the characters as individuals and not just caricatures. I find it intriguing and perhaps even ironic, or merely coincidental, that Jake Gyllenhaal starred in last year’s underrated thriller Nocturnal Animals, given that in Zodiac he is essentially one. His Robert Graysmith is a nocturnal animal, an increasingly gaunt, wide eyed mouse sniffing around for a piece of cheese, in this case the next tangible clue or lead worth obsessively investigating. And it’s all thanks to his unshakeable love for puzzles, a factor that helps decode the first Zodiac letter. As he digs deeper into the case, we come to fear for his safety, in particular during a genuinely white knuckling scene in which the unarmed and unimposing Graysmith ventures into the basement of someone we begin to assume might put an abrupt end to Graysmith’s life.
Before the blockbuster splash that was Iron Man in 2008 thundered into the film scene, one could have argued that Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery was the best he’d ever given. An argument can be made that while he was seemingly born to play the billionaire tycoon and saviour of the planet Tony Stark, his best work still resides in the fractured Avery. The deeper the investigation gets the further Avery seems to slip from cool as a cucumber journalist to a paranoid, spineless slob.
Prior to his self induced exile on a houseboat, I got a kick out of the scene where he joins Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) for drinks at a populated watering hole, chugging back those luminous bright blue Aqua Velvas while rambling about the case and their personal lives. There’s a great sense of both humour and humanity in that scene, as Avery lets his guard down and actually engages with someone beyond a superficial relationship, while Graysmith sheds his mouse-like internalized mannerisms in favour of energetic, loud behaviour, though briefly. From this point forward however, Graysmith has a spine, albeit a rather loosely fitting one, and Avery has seemingly lost his, donning “I am not Paul Avery” buttons in the hopes of fending off potential threats. He’d have made a wonderful Doc Sportello.
And of course, there’s San Francisco detective Dave Toschi played with a real sense of respectable authority by Mark Ruffalo. Toschi, an Animal Cracker snacking family man, and the inspiration behind both Steve McQueen’s preferred method of wearing his service revolver in Bullitt, and Dirty Harry’s iconic law breaking detective Harry Callahan, can’t seem to figure out how to put the pieces together in the Zodiac case, understandable in light of the overwhelming amount of contradictory information at hand. Under Fincher’s direction, Ruffalo portrays Toschi as a driven yet logically minded detective. He remains dedicated for years to catching the Zodiac, but lacks the desperation and paranoia Graysmith possesses. Instead, Toschi approaches every aspect of the case with the kind of logical thinking and reasoning every detective should be in possession of, following procedure by the book, and generally doing everything he can to crack the case until the psychological burden becomes far to heavy to bear. You can see how heavy sits in his mind by Ruffalo’s subtle body language in later parts of the movie, and you soon feel sorry for the guy.
Near the end of the film, Graysmith declares “I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him.”, desperate to prove that Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch; perfectly unnerving and subtle) is indeed the cold blooded killer. He gets his wish a short time later when he encounters Allen at an Ace Hardware store in Vallejo where Allen works as a clerk. Allen offers his assistance to Graysmith with a polite “Can I help you?”, Graysmith responds with a “No.”, the two men simply staring at one another until Graysmith leaves, Allen thrown off by Graysmith, and Graysmith appearing much more certain that Allens is the man they’re after. The movie moves forward eight years to when Mike Mageau, survivor of the Zodiac killer at the start of the film, meets with authorities to potentially identify the Zodiac killer, positively identifying Arthur Leigh Allen as the man who shot him and killed Darlene Ferrin. While many had their suspicions and some evidence pointed in his direction, Allen died in 1992 before he could be questioned. Not that he would have confessed anyway.
Admittedly, I have intentionally left out many details and characters, with no disrespect intended, and it should be said that every actor involved in this film, from the leading performances to the smallest of cameos (for exmaple, Ione Skye of Say Anything as Kathleen Johns, a woman who was threatened in her car by the Zodiac killer), give world class performances, some even the best of their careers to date. And the script by James Vanderbilt, based on books by Robert Graysmith, is an achievement of impeccable research and respect for the case. And the cinematography by the late Harris Savides is bar none the greatest work the man had ever crafted, richly capturing everything with immaculate detail, from the lush valleys of California and its busy, inviting cities and streets, to the Aqua Vera drinks, to beams of red light emanating from police cars. He painted a gorgeous picture for us to gawk at for years to come.
Ten years later, I find it astonishing that Zodiac never truly ends like other movies do. Most movies tie up every loose thread with a ribbon to go with it, others leave room for potential sequels. You can’t end a movie when their is no resolution in reality, forcing a tacked on Hollywood ending wouldn’t sit right with anyone in possession of a brain. You can only leave the audience with the next best thing, the assurance of a living Zodiac victim that the man in the picture they’re pointing to is indeed the man who shot him. That Fincher was bold enough to choose this manner of ending his film shows us he’s a director capable of unsettling viewers long after the film ends, without needing to manipulate his audience or present alternative facts. Zodiac is a bona fide masterpiece, the crime film equivalent to All The President’s Men, and just as good too.