#14 - Zodiac (David Fincher)

Hurdy Gurdy Man

We have always had a morbid fascination with serial killers. And since 1888 when Jack the Ripper roamed the streets of London, the idea of a lone and deranged figure hunting and slaying his fellow men for ungodly reasons is a recurring subject in our storytelling as well. Film is obviously no exception; in fact you could state that it has proven to be the preferred form for presenting narratives dealing with serial killers. Simply because it is the only medium that can truly aestheticize human violence, as morbid as that may sound, and portray the oftentimes unexplainable forces that drive disturbed men - the abyss that looks back, as Nietzsche would put it.

But still, the modern movie serial killer has a clear psychological profile that can rationally explain his every move. But even then the actions are stronger than any reason, because how does one rationalize to oneself a murder of another human? The abyss is always present, and so is our captivation. And many of these movie killers have roots in real-life murderers and criminal cases. One killer that has inspired quite a few movies is the Zodiac killer, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area in the late 60’s and well in to the 70’s.

The defining film about the Zodiac is of course David Fincher’s “Zodiac”, which is based on the actual case files of the investigation and the book of the same name by Robert Graysmith, who himself is a central character in the movie. It is not the first movie to be based on the Zodiac; that would be the classic Clint Eastwood film “Dirty Harry” which takes quite a few liberties with the events and presents an odd companion to Fincher’s film. Firstly because Fincher’s film actually has a scene where our hero watches “Dirty Harry” in a theater, and second because it was made while the Zodiac case was still very fresh, exploiting the sensationalist aspects of it. In this sense it complements the mind-boggling amount of information that Fincher’s film throws at you, as it provides a unique window in to the public’s perception of the Zodiac murders from the time when it was still an open subject and the killer was still a potential threat.

But David Fincher’s “Zodiac” is the meat and potatoes of that double-bill precisely because if provides such in-depth insight in to the case. The film is very slavish in its intent to the point where it completely omits the first Zodiac killing, the reason being that he left no survivors and that there were no witnesses to testify to the events.

It then further decides not to sensationalize the killings, as Graysmith’s book had a tendency to do. In the second killing, the one that the film starts off with, Graysmith’s book depicts a car chase between the killer and his victims. Later investigation proved that this chase never happened, so it is completely removed from the film. In fact all the killings that are shown have an overbearingly mundane quality to them that enhances their realism and impact. Realism being the key word, because the already mentioned slavishness of the film obsessively recreates every detail of not only the killings, but also the investigation of the case and the backdrop of 70’s San Francisco.

The investigation itself is quite unique for a Hollywood film. The majority of it is spent on crime scenes, interviewing suspects and phone calls coordinating between different departments; it shows the real side of detective work that lesser movies will gladly replace with chase scenes and shootouts. It’s a film fully devoted to the case and investigation of it, much in the sense of “All the President’s Men” and “JFK”, although it is more loose than the former but also it’s nowhere near as contrived as the latter.

This looseness comes from the fact that the film is not afraid to venture down dead alleys that the investigators have faced, it does not only portray the successes of the investigation but also the failures. It obsessively uproots all the major possibilities before deciding to point the finger on the most likely suspect.

Obsession is clearly a big theme of the film and it is what drives our protagonist. But the film’s very nature shows its director and its writer, James Vanderbilt, to be bitten by the same bug. Even to the point where they intentionally make very obscure and contrived connections that Graysmith, both the man and the character in the film, makes between possible evidence and the killer; “That’s Zaroff, with a Z?”.  And this is nowhere near a negative; in fact it is what I love about the film the most. It gives the film this viral quality that has the potential to inspire an audience member to obsessively pay attention and look for the clues within the film. It actively invites and encourages the audience to engage with the investigation and crack the case.

Still, the Zodiac was never captured, and on a filmmaking level it is a minor miracle that the film of this kind works without that final resolution. But in a way this works for the film because it makes the investigation participation aspect seem even more involving. And in a weird way this reminds me of Alan Moore's "From Hell", one of the greatest works on the subject of Jack the Ripper. In the appendix of that book he says that all these "ripperologists" took the events surrounding the Whitechapel murders and created this morbid super-reality and conspiracy around it, just in order to fill in the blanks, rationalize and get an acceptable conclusion. Moore happily admits to contributing to the phenomenon mind you, and states it's an easy and seductive trap to fall in to.

This is something that is very true with the Zodiac case as well. And although the film does its utmost to stay as close as possible to the facts it unapologetically contributes to the fascination that has surrounded the case for decades.

I personally have seen this film many times since its release because it managed to infect me with its obsessions, and it’s still a film I come back to from time to time. I didn’t say anything about the great cast and the performances they give, or the great cinematography and the scene to scene direction. These elements are superb and warrant a viewing just for their own sake, but after a few viewings they become the background and it’s the investigation at it's core that takes over completely.

It’s a movie that keeps on giving after repeat viewings, in fact it gets better the more times you see it and films that do so are very rare indeed. For me it’s possibly the greatest investigation movie ever made, but then again, I’ve been bitten by the bug as well.


Jake Gyllenhaal - Robert Graysmith
Mark Ruffalo - Dave Toschi
Robert Downey Jr. - Paul Avery
Anthony Edwards - Bill Armstrong
Chloe Sevigny - Melanie

Zodiac on IMDb 

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