Director: David Fincher Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox
In the late sixties and early seventies San Francisco was rocked by a serial killer who, through a series of letters he sent to the press, identified himself as Zodiac and expressed his intention to commit even more horrendous crimes. The case was never solved and would eventually form the basis of a book by a young political cartoonist Robert Graysmith who had been working as a cartoonist for a San Francisco newspaper at the time of the killings before his interest in the case developed into full blown obsession. It’s Graysmith’s obsession and subsequent book that form the basis of Fincher’s film.
And what a film it is. A blend of true crime drama, police procedural and biopic the actual crimes of Zodiac take up only a small proportion of the running time, the remainder of the slightly epic two and a half hours being given over to the sprawling police investigation and the subsequent research done by Graysmith into the existing evidence in the hope he would uncover something new or at least that was perhaps overlooked by the police. The film has been fastidiously pieced together from the original case files and eyewitness testimonies as well as through consultations with the original investigating officers on the case not to mention Graysmith himself. The attention to detail is incredible, even down to such incidental details as the clothing the victims were wearing (which has been reproduced from the original crime scene photos) and the murder scenes being filmed at the locations of the original crimes.
While this may sound a little morbid there is a respectable ethic at the heart of these decisions, a dedication to portraying events as accurately as possible on the screen so as to avoid drifting into the realms of artistic licence. This extends to the depicted crimes. All the murders we see being carried out on screen are ones where there has been eye witness testimony – either from a survivor or from a bystander – to give the relevant details of what happened. The murders where there were no survivors to tell the tale are talked about but not shown. This is the very tip of an iceberg of authenticity that Fincher relentlessly pursued during the making of the film. In Kubrickian style newspapers and crime files are exact and complete reproductions of the originals of the era. A stack of newspapers in the office are complete replicas in every detail of the relevant editions of the time. One of the murder sites was painstakingly restored (down to shipping in trees) in order to accurately resemble the way it was in the early seventies.
You may be wondering where the point lies in such extravagant production techniques. After all, it makes no difference to the audience if the newspapers are authentic replicas or if there are enough trees at a particular point in the park where a couple are brutally attacked. I would argue that these details don’t have to be correct for the audience but that they make a massive difference for the actors. In a similar way to the elaborate and highly detailed production design of early Ridley Scott movies (see: Blade Runner, Alien) such an immersive and persistently real world can only help to inform performances and aid actors in capturing the right look and feel for their characters.
This strategy has clearly paid off in Zodiac. The entire cast are superb and while Jake Gyllenhaal garners most of the screen time in the role of Graysmith (a role he researched by spending time with the real Graysmith) there is an ever present threat of scene stealing from the supporting cast. Robert Downey Jr. is excellent as the somewhat flamboyant crime reporter Paul Avery, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Elias Koteas all put in great turns as the cops embroiled in the investigation. Ruffalo is particularly good in the role of Inspector David Toschi who was the inspiration for both Bullitt and Dirty Harry (a film whose main villain ‘Scorpio’ was inspired by the Zodiac killer) and who was the detective in charge of the Zodiac investigation.
The period setting seems to have given Fincher a touch of the Scorseses, particularly in the brutal and bloody murder sequences. There’s something about violent deaths set to a late sixties/early seventies soundtrack that naturally recalls the likes of Goodfellas and Casino and whether this was accidental, sub-conscious or a deliberate homage I’m not sure. It works really well though. In typical style, Fincher has employed computer generated effects in a subtle and effective way, largely using them to recreate a San Francisco of forty years ago rather than for anything too fancy. Just like in his other films, you often don’t realise when a digital effect is being employed and when it is more obvious it never feels self indulgent or unnecessary. I wish more filmmakers would treat computer effects in this way, as a way to augment what they are doing rather than as a shortcut to set design or a way of avoiding mechanical effects.
While the film does seem to settle on a prime suspect for the unsolved mystery it doesn’t really push this forward as its own theory. It’s more the story of Graysmith’s journey to this conclusion, from the moment the case first piqued his curiosity to the obsessional conclusion he finally reached and everything it cost him inbetween. Put together with aplomb by a director who has treated the film with the same fanatacism, it manages to retain a sense of suspense and excitement without sensationalising the subject matter. It would have been very easy to make another Dirty Harry from the tale of Zodiac but Fincher’s dedication to the facts of the matter shines through and the film is all the better for it. Once again he has delivered a masterclass in the art of filmmaking.