David Fincher’s Zodiac is an important film in the director’s canon. It shows the growth of Fincher himself as a filmmaker, and also handles one of the sensationalized Hollywood stories, the serial killer on the loose, in novel ways. The serial killer horror thriller has been a staple of Hollywood’s blockbuster slate for decades, starting with the runaway success of films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 and John Carpenter’s Halloween, made in 1979. Both films are classics of the horror genre, but also purposely sensationalize the lurid tales of serial killers, playing to a morbid curiosity in American culture following the Manson family killings. David Fincher himself was a notable director in the genre, having directed one of the most iconic and popular horror films of the 1990’s, 1995’s Se7en. It was only appropriate that over a decade later, a film about one of the most enigmatic and puzzling real life crime stories in the enigmatic Zodiac killer would be directed by Fincher. Yet Fincher’s Zodiac is hardly a conventional film within the genre, even compared to Se7en. Instead of a bloody, thrilling roller coaster, Zodiac is a comparatively slow, bleak film, where the audience is immersed in the increasingly futile hunt for the killer’s identity.
Zodiac is far from a bloodless film. In fact at times it can be shockingly unsettling and brutal, yet the blood is not the point. Sequences such as the Zodiac’s murder of two college students near Lake Berryessa are startling not just for their graphic content and tension, but also for their rarity in the film’s 157 minute runtime. The sequence is classic Fincher, juxtaposing gorgeous framing and rich color against sudden, detached cinematic violence. Yet it’s a moment that exists almost in a vacuum. Instead the bulk of the film’s attention is squarely on its two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist who decrypts the killer’s enigmatic messages, and Robert Downey Jr. as crime reporter Paul Avery. Employees at the same paper, they have direct access to the killing’s lead investigator, Dave Toschi, played by Mark Ruffalo. Graysmith and Avery are emblematic of the broader public’s interest in the killers. The various rabbit holes they’re led down throughout the film, none of which are conclusive, reflect how complicated and seemingly impossible the case is to crack. The media is depicted as a means of inspiring the killer by drawing further attention, while also making meaningful progress to identifying him or her impossible, as one copy cat after another dilutes the investigation.
This sense of frustration, for both the characters within the film and the audience, is where Zodiac makes a bold break from convention. Zodiac is a film about a serial killer in which the killer is barely present, eluding the grasp of the audience. Intrigued by the stark violence of the film’s first act, their desperation for a clear answer mirrors that of Graysmith himself. As the film progresses, it’s clear that the main antagonist is the general public themselves, their interest only serving to undermine the case and increase the notoriety of the killer. While the killer’s presence can be felt through various threatening phone calls made to Graysmith, it’s an entirely different kind of terror from that delivered by Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees or even Fincher’s own John Doe. It’s an anonymous terror, whose mysteriousness only enhances how frightening the titular murderer is.
By the film’s final act both Graysmith and Avery have surrendered to their own demons, Graysmith having alienated his family due to his obsession with the case and Avery having collapsed into alcoholism. It’s in these moments that the film’s cast shines, especially the leads. Robert Downey Jr. was a year away from his mainstream revival in Marvel’s Iron Man but over a year removed from his return to form as an actor in the excellent Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Here he plays an affable charmer in the film’s opening act and, through the stress of the case, devolves into a drunken burn-out. Both sides of his portrayal are equally mesmerizing. Gyllenhaal’s performance doesn’t have as wide a range but he balances Avery’s quiet intensity and vulnerability with grace. It is through him that the audience experiences the film’s theme of obsession and the fear of the unknown, resolving in one of the most potent and thematically appropriate anti-climaxes in cinema. The Zodiac Killer’s identity has slipped between the cracks of history, and all that remains is Graysmith’s and, by extension, the general public’s lingering questions. These questions contribute to the Zodiac Killer’s terrifying legacy far more than his graphic murders and cryptic messages. David Fincher understood this, and created a film that tackles how the broader public mythologizes a very bleak reality.