Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: James Vanderbilt
Zodiac is part of the serial-killer subgenre, and the first thing it does it get the killer’s motivations out of the way by playing the Three Dog Night cover of “Easy to be Hard” over a Northern California Fourth of July:
How can people be so heartless?
How can people be so cruel?
To be hard, easy to be cold.
And, thankfully, that’s about all the psychology that Fincher offers. Zodiac, after all, isn’t about what would drive someone to kill, but, by focusing on the twenty-five year investigation into those killings, about what would drive someone to care about them; it isn’t about the banality of evil, but the banality of the pursuit of evil. Who was the man who called himself “Zodiac” who killed at least five people in California during the end of 1960’s and the dawn of the 1970’s and took credit for many more? There’s only one way to find out—to the library!
Based on a couple of books by Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie is essentially his story, though for most of the first act he is hidden in the background. Graysmith was a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the newspapers that the Zodiac sent his rambling, threatening letters and cryptic cryptograms to for publication, who gradually becomes obsessed with the case. First aided by his newsroom desk-neighbor Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and later by Detective Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), among others, Graysmith is like a Woodstein with half a dozen Deep Throats, and the film has drawn comparisons to All The President’s Men; I saw a bit of Jim Garrison in him, too, as he poured over boxes of files while his marriage fell apart around him. But whereas Garrison, and Woodward & Bernstein, were trying to save the country, or at least uncover information that would have far reaching effects, Graysmith, whose investigation only gets more intense as the killings stop, just needs to know, just for himself.
Fincher brilliantly recreates the arc of emotional and psychological intensity behind this obsessive exploration into the killer’s identity: early in the film, when finding and arresting the Zodiac could still save lives, the story is frightening, exciting, and gripping, tapping into the actual hysteria of the times; but the suspenseful aura of fear that hangs over the film soon feels dragged-out, intentionally, as Fincher follows of the lead of the dragged-out quality of the case itself. Lots of loose-threads and false-leads go nowhere, and many of the characters—and most of the country—simply move on with their lives; as Det. Toschi notes, “people get old, they forget…” but those, like Graysmith and by association the viewer, who don’t get out while they still can get trapped in a destructive downward spiral of obsession that feels increasingly trivial. As the film once hurtled forward with titles like, “two hours later”, “two days later”, it soon slows and the titles read, “three weeks later”, “three months later”, and Zodiac, intelligently, descends into mundanity.
But that’s not to say that it’s ever boring, at least not for this recovering Unsolved Mysteries addict. (That was a self-deprecating swipe at myself, not at the film.) Even during the telephone conversations that deal with jurisdictional privilege and the bureaucratic red tape, even as the film’s emotional character goes from frightening suspense to prosaic, though beguiling, mystery, it’s always absorbing and funny, too, eliciting chuckles from my date and I even during the grisly recreations of the murders themselves. The acting is superb, the cinematography (by Harris Savides, cementing his reputation as arguably the finest of his generation) is astounding and the soundtrack (“Hurdy Gurdy Man” never sounded so good!) is marvelous. On all accounts, Zodiac is a great film, a rarity nowadays that, for its attention to detail, wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective as a Wikipedia entry.