If David Fincher wanted to justify a second foray into the serial-killer genre, he would need to come up with an entirely different angle on the tired mode if the result could ever be considered an artistic progression. Fortunately, Zodiac is about as different from Seven as one could hope for, to the point where it is virtually unrecognisable as a Fincher film. He’s reined in his glorious, commanding stylistic excess in favour of a stoic but ultimately more insidious tone that makes Zodiac a riveting experience, even at nearly three hours.
Of course, Fincher is arguably obliged to provide a more sombre rendering since Zodiac chronicles true events in 1960s and 1970s California. The unidentified but very public killer eschewed any kind of consistent modus operandi when he killed five people in 1968 and 1969, and the sheer randomness gave the self-titled Zodiac killer a legendary mystique, especially since he may have been responsible for more murders than the five he claimed responsibility for. Despite numerous suspects, the Zodiac was never caught, and has since acquired a Jack-the-Ripper style aura due to his utter inexplicability.
The investigation was the subject of two books by Robert Graysmith (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal), a former political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who became obsessed with the case after the Zodiac sent taunting letters to his paper and demanded that they be published on the front page. Fincher’s film follows Graysmith’s dedicated quest, along with those of detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards, finally securing a good post-ER role) and star Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the destructive power the Zodiac comes to have over them all. This is primarily a film about the obsession with closure rather than the attainment of it, especially since the ‘bad guy’ is not caught or killed at the end. As in the real case, the film ends with a strong indication that a certain party was responsible, but sufficient proof is never acquired. That’s not a spoiler, as Zodiac is about the journey rather than the destination.
The closest the film comes to a conventional serial killer film – or even a crime drama – is in the opening half hour when the Zodiac’s killings are depicted, most notably in two harrowing sequences virtually free of gore but wrenching in their sharp, brutal acts of violence. If you find this sort of scene too much, I encourage perseverance, because once they’re over you’re virtually home free as Zodiac then transforms into an ironically modern hybrid of 70s classics All the President’s Men and The Conversation, as Toschi diligently wades through due process in pursuit of a result (a stark contrast to the Dirty Harry-style on-screen cops that Toschi unwittingly inspired, as he wryly observes in the film), Avery haphazardly makes breakthroughs while drug addiction slowly takes hold, and Graysmith develops the insatiable need to know the identity of this urban ghoul, even as his burgeoning family life suffers. Not to belittle Fincher’s truly stellar prior efforts, but I’m sure even he would admit that Zodiac is his most mature, nuanced film yet. It is actually startling to compare Seven and especially Fight Club – with their respective chic despair and anarchic wit – with this film, to the point where Zodiac feels like the work of a different filmmaker. Only scenes like Gyllenhaal’s panic when suspecting that a middle-aged projectionist is the Zodiac recall the caustic wit of his other work.
In the five year gap between the entertaining mainstream experiment Panic Room and Zodiac, Fincher seems to have been reborn as a culturally and historically-minded director of great subtlety, willing to probe the depths of the psyche using performance and space rather than extravagant art direction and adventurous camera moves. This is not an indictment of his past films, but Fincher himself has already written the book on marrying stylism with the mainstream, so a step backward was a wise move in order to step forward. Instead of crisp, fresh gestures, Zodiac is as much a film about exhaustion as obsession. Every scene feels meticulously constructed to within an inch of its life, but not so they are rendered lifeless. Instead, the film feels vibrant in its detail, as Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s intensive research (and Graysmith’s own, naturally) along with Fincher’s perfectionism in demanding endless takes, coalesce into a film that drips history, that is acutely in touch with the reality of the events it depicts while at the same time being a movie, first and foremost. Fincher has in fact aimed for the opposite extreme of Seven, using art to exalt reality rather than transforming reality with artistic extravagance. Zodiac is a remarkable film that feels like a breath of fresh, shocking air in an industry where the detailed, intensive drama is a rare beast, and it coheres even more startlingly but reassuringly with every subsequent viewing.