Originally published on March 2, 2017.
The story of what came to be known as the Zodiac murders began on December 20, 1968, though no one knew at the time how significant that particular shooting was to become. There’s no agreed upon date when the murders ended because the Zodiac—a moniker the killer gave himself—has never been identified. His shadow stretches until it just reaches into 1970, though attacks beyond 1969 have never been substantiated. For a period of just a bit more than a year, the Bay Area was paralyzed by the randomness and viciousness of these crimes. And that viral fear was spreading. Down in Los Angeles, the Tate and LaBianca murders committed by the Manson family were essentially contemporaneous with later Zodiac attacks. Californians at both ends of the state were sleepwalking through a new reality.
This is the context in which the editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith began a job at the San Francisco Chronicle in the summer of 1969. And though the timeline of the Zodiac murders is a relatively compact one, it’s a thread Graysmith, who became a central part of the narrative, continues to chase. The story depicted in David Fincher’s 2007 film, based on Graysmith’s bestselling 1986 book by the same title, begins and ends with Graysmith. Ten years on, the film that tells his story continues to transfix viewers, and getting caught up in its snare still feels all too easy.
Zodiac begins with the 1969 murder of Darlene Ferrin and the attempted murder of her companion, Mike Mageau. We’re immediately immersed in the late-60s California teenage milieu—the two are even parked at a lovers’ lane—and we’re initially lulled by the gorgeous framing and nostalgic look of the era (Fincher is known for being reverent to the details). But we’re not 15 minutes into the film before the Zodiac (whose face is never shown) makes his first kill.
From this point on, Fincher sets us squarely in the thick of the action, courtesy of Graysmith’s memories of his first days at the newspaper. There’s smoking, boozing, and what reads as a yellowy haze to the lens, like an admixture of the cigarettes and sunshine. It all screams mid-century modern in a sleepy, Californian way (Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce never looked golden). This is a West Coast newsroom and you don’t even have to wear a tie if you don’t feel want to (contrast that to formality of the Post newsroom in All the President’s Men just five narrative years later). It’s in this informal setting that a cartoonist somehow becomes chummy with a hard-hitting reporter and sets our story in motion.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Graysmith, a young, divorced father new to both the newsroom and its unspoken protocols. His social awkwardness paired with a goody-goody reputation make him an outsider among his co-workers until he proves his utility. The Zodiac has begun sending ciphers to San Francisco newsrooms and, through his love of puzzles and research, Graysmith correctly intuits several critical pieces of information about the Zodiac from examining the letters. Robert Downey Jr. co-stars as Paul Avery, a dissolute but tenacious reporter who bonds with Graysmith as the two work to parse the meaning behind the killer’s messages.
The police soon become involved and we’re treated to some quality screen time with a rumpled Mark Ruffalo as Inspector Dave Toschi (purportedly the inspiration for Eastwood’s Dirty Harry!) and his partner Inspector William Armstrong (played by a too-infrequently seen Anthony Edwards) attempt to piece together clues related to several attacks that cut across a wide swath of the state, entangling multiple jurisdictions.
For a story that hinges on interpreting clues and examining evidence, Fincher does a masterful job of creating intimacy through strategic insert shots. The characters are staring at a cipher or a suspect sketch, sure, but it won’t be long before you are, too—if only for a tantalizing moment or two. Each instance serves as a mini shot of adrenaline, powering you through a nearly three-hour movie with energy to spare (though if you can make it through the whole film without grabbing your phone to Google significant facts of the case, you’re a more patient soul than I).
In fact, what makes the film immediately gripping—its faithful relaying of real-world events—isn’t actually what makes it indelible ten years on. Many films can recount actual events with clarity and do it well (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon), but Zodiac is a rare perfect meeting of director to project and arguably that’s what has made it so enduring.
This story is a natural fit for Fincher’s obsessive directorial style, allowing him to fixate on the details, whether in the framing, set design or pacing of the narrative. There’s a straight forwardness to the storytelling that feels respectful when it would be all too easy to go ghoulish, lingering on the more lurid aspects of the case. The murders are documented early on in an almost efficient manner. It’s as if Fincher is trying to point us toward what’s significant. The murders were meaningful because human life was lost, but what Fincher is after is the story of what happens to those who must make sense of that loss.
Bryan Hartnell was one of the few to survive a meeting with the Zodiac; he was on a picnic with his girlfriend when the Zodiac approached them, hooded and cloaked in all black, in a scene that was immortalized in the infamous black-and-white sketch anyone familiar with the case has seen. Hartnell served as an advisor on the film, albeit with some initial reluctance, but it was Fincher’s dutiful commitment to the truth that won Hartnell over. In an interview, he discussed knowing the story would one day be made but that “you want to put it in the hands of someone you trust. David wants to get it right. That’s all you can ask a person.”
While Fincher is most identified with his psychological thrillers—Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999), Panic Room (2002) and Gone Girl (2014) among them—Zodiac allowed him to play within the boundaries of fear but not be constrained by them. This is, after all, a film helmed by the son of a mental health nurse and a reporter. Fixation, compulsion, doggedness, and analysis all converge here under Fincher’s deft stewardship.
And though there are genuine scares, as would be expected in a film about a real-life boogeyman, Zodiac is at its heart a story about obsession—that of the reporters, to the investigators, to the killer. If the concept of the Zodiac is a blank canvas on which we project our unspoken fears, then Graysmith enters this story as the equivalent of an empty vessel. He’s a man waiting to be obsessed.
He meets and marries an incredible partner, played by a warm and centering Chloë Sevigny, before he loses her and their family to his preoccupation with the case. She’s no match for his relationship to the Zodiac, which persists for years as others associated with the investigation drop off one by one; Armstrong requests a transfer, Avery sinks deeper into alcoholism, even the Zodiac stops making contact. Soon it’s just Graysmith and Toschi, though even they move in separate spheres. None of us get the answers we’re looking for in Zodiac, but the film challenges us to think about why that matters.
In recent interviews, Graysmith has talked about how his involvement in the case led him to be estranged from his children for a time but that things are much better now. Maybe those now-grown children came to understand why Graysmith felt such an obligation to the case, or perhaps they just forgave him for what he chose to prioritize. But they talk to him again. And the murders stopped. Graysmith remains convinced of the guilt of one particular suspect (long dead), and he got to spend countless hours immersed in the puzzle of a lifetime. Happy endings all look different depending on your perspective.
True crime, whether in film or in print, is a genre that has a strong pull for the intellectually obsessive—those who cope with discomfort through research, who respond to titillation but can compartmentalize it, and who justify their interests by venerating the pursuit of truth. Graysmith is one of these people and Fincher, too. I am. How about you?
In Zodiac, Fincher gives us a means of exploring our fascination with our own fears and obsessions, a frame we can step into and out of at will. He lets us stay just long enough to momentarily satisfy our curiosity, but the truth is that figures like the Zodiac will always speak to us. If we’re smart, we’ll be selective about when we listen.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures