In the summer of 1969, a young couple, Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes) and Mike Mageau (Lee Norris), is attacked by an unknown male. Ferrin is murdered, but Mageau manages to survive the attack.
One month later, the San Francisco Chronicle receives an encrypted letter from the killer calling himself the “Zodiac”. Political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is extremely intrigued by the serial killer’s letters, though his interest in the case is not taken seriously at all by crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), nor the other editors for the paper. However, over time Avery finds Graysmith’s insight more than helpful.
As the weeks turn into months and months turn into years, Graysmith and SFPD Inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are pushed to their limits with their investigation in tracking down the notoriously elusive serial killer.
From the late ’60s and early ’70s, California’s Zodiac Killer had families terrified and investigators’ heads spinning, taunting the police and journalists with letters, blood-stained clothing and ciphers. With all the clues he supplied, this was a killer practically out in the open yet completely invisible at the same time. And unlike many of America’s most notorious serial killers (Bundy, Manson, Gacy, Dahmer, Wuornos) who were either sentenced to death or life in prison, Zodiac’s notoriety is in how he was never convicted, or even captured for that matter, despite the number of potential suspects, conspiracy theories and those claiming to know his identity that came and went throughout the decades since he first emerged.
Over time, Zodiac’s unsolved case has turned from real-life serial killing terror to disturbing West Coast folklore. England has Jack the Ripper; America has the Zodiac Killer.
Zodiac takes places over the course of many years, involves a variety of characters, locations, crime scenes and is so many different story types that it could’ve been a massive train wreck in the wrong hands. Put it in the hands of director David Fincher, one of the best directors of the past 20 years, and it becomes a psychological thriller masterpiece that works as a police procedural, period piece and journalist story a la All the President’s Men (Fincher was drawn to this film ’cause he spent most of his childhood in Marin County, California during the initial Zodiac murders).
What’s somewhat surprisingly absent is Fincher’s trademark style that he brings to his movies, whether it’s the bloody neo-noir vibe of Se7en and Fight Club, Panic Room, making a trashy soap opera like Gone Girl so entertaining or Alien 3. I understand the latter is hated by most (come on, it’s at least better than Resurrection), but it speaks so well of Fincher when Roger Ebert, who didn’t like the film, referred to it as “one of the best looking bad films he’s seen”.
Yet even if Fincher’s eschewing his go-to tools of the trade for a more straightforward take on the Zodiac investigation, this is still one of the most compelling thrillers of the 21st century, one that refreshingly focuses on those after the killer instead of the killer’s methodology. Not that this isn’t without a moment or two inspired reminders of his style, but it’s clear, knowing Fincher’s own personal experiences growing up in the midst of these murders (he recalls police cars having to follow his school bus home from school for a couple weeks), that this is a passion project for him, one that doesn’t need the stylistic touches he normally brings, and it shows in every painstakingly detailed shot. This honestly could be as narratively standard as vanilla, but the exhaustive research and detail Fincher and his team (he, screenwriter James Vanderbilt and producer Brad Fischer spent 18 months on just researching the case) put into recreating these events is what makes this such an immensely riveting film. It may not be as thrilling as Se7en is, but the ominous sense of dread that permeates through these 165 minutes of recreated history is much more palpable (the scene which takes place in the basement still paralyzes me with chills to this day).
I mean, imagine living through those events, and the very people everyone’s relying on to track this guy down – the police and the media – are being toyed with like children by a killer who always seems to be two steps ahead of them.
The sets, costume design, the word-for-word recreation of Zodiac’s letters – every aspect from the big things to all the little nuances is crafted with great care, and the sense of time and place created by Fincher is magnificently handled. Even at well over 2 1/2 hours, it’s thanks to Fincher’s pacing skill and his longtime collaborator Angus Wall’s editing that you don’t feel a single second of it drag.
The film features a talented cast of great character actors such as Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney and Donal Logue, all of whom portray various actual characters who were involved in some capacity with the case. At the forefront are the four that were the most involved – former San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (the screenplay is based on his book), crime reporter Paul Avery and Inspectors David Toschi and Bill Armstrong, the two leading law enforcement officials on the case.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the finest performances of his career as Graysmith, the straight-laced former Eagle Scout who becomes increasingly obsessed with discovering the true identity of the killer which takes a toll on his personal life (the real Graysmith himself has stated his obsessive interest in the case led to the divorce of his second wife Melanie). Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are both terrific as Toschi and Armstrong, respectively, the two sharing a strained “work” relationship with Graysmith and Paul Avery. At times, they feel the two SFC editors are only getting in the way, but then there are other times they reluctantly seek their help since they’re the ones receiving the Zodiac’s letters.
In a bit of casting that is as pitch-perfect as it can get, Robert Downey, Jr. owns every scene that he is in without overwhelming them (as great as he is as Tony Stark, I view his performance here as his “comeback” role, coming a year before Iron Man). Given Paul Avery’s struggles with alcohol and cocaine and knowing the personal battles Downey himself had to overcome, it’s almost a case of distracting typecasting, but Downey hits every brilliant yet self-destructive note perfectly.
Zodiac lacks the obligatory chase scenes and shootouts used to pump up the suspense, and even lacks David Fincher’s trademark style, but it doesn’t matter. The genius of Fincher lies in the superb pacing, three of the strongest performances of Gyllenhaal, Downey, Jr. and Ruffalo’s careers, and all the meticulous details from the authentic ’70s San Francisco production design to the investigation. It’s all of these components put together that transform what at at first glance appears to be just another standard police procedural film into a masterfully constructed suspense thriller, one that is undoubtedly one of the best ever made.