The pedestrian way to film the story of ZODIAC, the San Francisco Bay Area serial killer whose rampage extended from the late 1960s through the 1970s, would be to make a taut action thriller with snazzy directing tricks and gung-ho dialogue. Here was a psychopath who hunted people for sport and through a combination of smarts and dumb luck was never arrested. His victims, young couples, a taxi driver, were going about their humdrum lives when suddenly, a savage attack came out of nowhere. It’s a true-life slasher film and someone with much less imagination than director David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt would have gone the easy route making a perhaps solid but ultimately forgettable film. The film they made instead is just as creepy as any slasher-fest, but without the facade of fantasy, it resonates much more deeply, violating the audience’s sense of security and its illusion of a world with happy endings and a guilty party made to pay. Or at least give an explanation for what drove him. That last is what consumes to greater or lesser degrees all the protagonists of ZODIAC, and that story of obsession is what sets this film apart.
It begins with the second murder in the small town of Vallejo, but the first one where Zodiac calls the police afterwards to report the crime. The caller takes credit for an earlier murder, too, and not content with small town fame, sends letters to the local paper and two San Francisco dailies, the Chronicle and the Examiner. It’s in the Chronicle newsroom that rookie political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), along with the rest of the editorial board, first hears what Zodiac has to say and sees the code that will become, like the Zodiac himself, an obsession. It’s also where he loses his innocence, as it were, as he hears the editors discussing how this will let them scoop the competition.
While he will go on to write the true-crime book on which this film is based, he’s not assigned to the story, of course, not even to drawing a cartoon about it. He does, however, latch onto the reporter who does get it, Paul Avery (the bracingly charismatic Robert Downey, Jr.), a strutting peacock in both his character and his sartorial choices in a land of dull gray men. Even the few women who inhabited the newsroom at that time of electric typewriters, rotary phones, and omnipresent clouds of cigarette smoke paled into lifelessness compared to Avery’s melodramatic style and ironic repartee as sharp as a serpent’s tooth. Graysmith, on the other hand, is the office boy scout, he doesn’t smoke or drink, but he does go through Avery’s trash and talks to him endlessly about the case. Avery humors him, more to amuse himself than to humor Graysmith.
That plotline crosses that of the police detectives, pleasingly rumpled Nick Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his nebbishy, pocket-protector wearing parter William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), who catch the murder of a cabbie in a posh part of San Francisco that turns out to be the work of the ZODIAC. Working in parallel universes of media and justice, the tandem investigations work sometimes at cross-purposes, but each experiencing the same false-leads that aren’t necessarily wrong, dead-ends, and a murderer’s psyche that is as grotesque to them as it is perversely fascinating.
Fincher and Vanderbilt divide the film into two distinct parts. The first is full the mordant humor that people who deal with the dregs of humanity develop as a reflex action. Toschi and Armstrong banter about the advisability of trying sushi while dealing with a murder scene. Avery considers with baleful and bemused eyes the neon-colored cocktail Graysmith orders before succumbing to the temptation of the kitsch. And then there’s Melvin Belli (Brian Cox suitably bombastic and larger than life as he almost steals the film), contacted by Zodiac and torn between fears for his safety and his fatal attraction to the limelight. But when a suspect is interviewed, the one everyone is convinced is Zodiac, the mood darkens, the colors bleach, and the camera focuses tightly, creating the edginess of uncertainty that continues throughout, building as the characters become more driven as the clues refuse to add up.
The clutching at straws becomes indistinguishable from solid leads as Zodiac eludes discovery. He never leaves fingerprints, and though he commits the murders in public places, it’s as though fate is keeping him safe. Committing crimes in different counties with less than stellar cross-communication suppresses key clues, and an APB for a black suspect after the SF shooting lets a heavy-set, lumbering man pass unstopped by two patrolmen minutes after the shooting. In the able hands of Fincher and his actors, these gaffes become heart-stopping and heart-breaking. The frustration of the characters becomes achingly palpable in the audience that is experiencing the same rush and intensity of emotion.
The other choice that is key to making this the stuff of real nightmares is how the murders themselves are depicted. There is little blood shown. The focus is on the reactions of the victims who even as their life blood flows out of them can’t quite process what is happening to them. There is the sound of the bullets firing or of the knife penetrating flesh that happen in a flash coupled with build-ups that are slow and elegant and all but impossible to watch without squirming.
ZODIAC is supremely intelligent, disturbing filmmaking. Laying bare the effect of evil on those exposed to it even at a remove is more than a cautionary tale, it is a terrifying one.