Explaining a mystery is an act of reassurance. It makes us feel as if chaos has been defeated, order has been restored, and all is right in the world again.
Zodiac — David Fincher’s masterful drama about the hunt for the serial killer terrorizing San Francisco during the late ’60’s — offers no soothing closure. It’s an unequivocally haunting film. It beautifully reenacts one of the most infamous “cold” cases in US criminal history. A movie about the nature of obsession, it stays in perfect step with the men who chased those phantom leads. It wasn’t so much because they felt some connection to the victims, but rather because they simply couldn’t leave a puzzle unsolved.
Zodiac follows the events in strict chronology without imposing any artificial structure. The first letters arrived in 1969 — the year Zodiac shot one young couple and knifed another in separate Northern California counties. He then moved on to San Francisco, where he put a bullet in a cab driver. Primal fear is hard to explain. However, the characters in Fincher’s film try to do so by cutting a monster like this down to the size of a human. At the head of the list is Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). Gyllenhaal stars as the real life cartoonist-turned-writer, though he doesn’t emerge fully into the picture until after the bodies and investigations have cooled down. A seductive Robert Downey Jr. plays Paul Avery — a crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He chased the killer in print and would eventually become a target himself. Graysmith, a shy newbie at the Chronicle, is immediately intrigued when the first letter arrives. He’s like the curious new kid fascinated by the secrets of the older guys. He doodles with the cipher and we think he’ll solve it, but he doesn’t. In fact, the cipher stumped a plethora of law enforcement agencies (including the FBI and the CIA). It eventually was cracked by a California schoolteacher and his wife.
Graysmith hounds Avery for information and details — who in turn hounds the SFPD’s hotshot homicide inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). Toschi, famous at the time, tutored Steve McQueen for the film Bullitt. He also was the role model for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Ruffalo plays him not as a celebrity of sorts, but as a dogged officer who does things by the book. This is because Toschi actually believes in the book. Edwards’s character is more personally worn down by the vicious nature of the killer and his constant taunts. The contentious bond among all these men will stretch into years, even when Armstrong drops out after no arrests are made.
The story structure is as seamless as the story telling. Slotted into two distinct sections, the first concerns the murder and the investigations. The second, far shorter one, involves Graysmith’s transformation of the murders and the investigation into a narrative. The first section (opening in 1969) is drained of all bright colors, save for splashes of yellow, the color of caution and safety. The second, more vibrantly hued section, begins with Graysmith sitting in the Chronicle newsroom. Its yellow pillars are now painted light blue. He looks as bushy-tailed and bright-eyed as the day he read the first Zodiac letter. Domestic tranquility it seems can’t hold a candle to work.
Long after the investigation grows cold, Graysmith’s obsession remains. It eventually drives his wife (Chloe Sevigny) to move her and the kids out of the house away from his mania. He seems oblivious to the danger he is drawing to himself, even after he appears on television and starts hearing heavy breathing over the telephone. Because Graysmith is unarmed and a civilian, we as an audience become genuinely worried about his risk-taking and naïveté. This is especially apparent during a trip to a basement that is, in my opinion, one of the scariest scenes in the entirety of the film. What makes this film so authentic is the way it avoids false climaxes, shootouts, and grandstanding. Fincher gives us time and dates at the bottom of the screen — which only serves to underline how the case seemed to stretch out to infinity.
Psychology isn’t really Fincher’s bag. He isn’t interested in what lies beneath, but rather the visible evidence of the case. Zodiac is a mind-bending, nonstop mesmerizer of a film that needed another die-hard fanatic such as Fincher to make it pop onscreen. It’s a wonder the director wasn’t traumatized by this nut job. Fincher was seven years old at the time the killings were occurring, and lived right in the kill zone. His polished technique and incredible attention to detail can leave you breathless. Like his journalists and detectives, Mr. Fincher seems possessed to recreate reality — and to revisit the scene of every crime — piece by piece.
Image Source: And So It Begins