R, 157 min.
Director: David Fincher
Writers: James Vanderbilt, Robert Graysmith (book)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Chloë Sevigny, Dermot Mulroney, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Philip Baker Hall, Zach Grenier, John Terry, Adam Goldberg, Clea Duvall, James Le Gros, Charles Fleischer, Jimmi Simpson, Patrick Scott Lewis, Pell James, Ciara Hughes, Lee Norris, Ione Skye
David Fincher’s “Zodiac” seems to be the moment in his career when he transcended all that had come before and entered a new era of his work. I don’t know if it’s because everything he’s done since “Zodiac” has been based on a book, or if he just broadened his scope in terms of depth and drama. But, “Zodiac” was certainly the start of a new phase in Fincher’s career.
What makes “Zodiac” such a powerful film is the way it captures how the investigation of the zodiac killer disintegrated after years of mistakes, lack of coordination, and just plain bafflement. It also parallels the obsession that drives a serial murder with those of the cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who was not part of either the law enforcement investigation or the journalistic one, but was responsible for the book upon which the film is based. The dramatic rewards, however, are not what concern me on this Halloween evening. I’m more interested in the horror aspects of the movie.
Fincher had his first great success with the thriller “Seven”, which played more like a horror movie than your standard police procedural. Pretty much every Fincher film has had the atmosphere of a horror film—including his Oscar nominated “The Social Network”. “Zodiac” actually depicted some real life horror scenarios. Of course, much as we know little about the actual Zodiac killer—who murdered at least 5 people in the San Francisco Bay area over the course of five years in the late 60s and early 70s, although he claimed 37 victims—the filmmakers must imagine how the murders actually occurred.
Fincher takes a unique approach to their depiction. He uses four different actors to depict the killer, one for each incident involving Zodiac confirmed by the San Francisco Police Department. Although he uses a different actor for each incident, you never see the killer’s face or any identifying features. He remains faceless throughout these reenactments despite the fact that Graysmith points the finger fairly definitively at one suspect by the end of the film, portrayed by yet another actor. During the murders it’s merely his presence we experience, there is nothing presented to hint at his identity. So, why five different actors?
The answer to that may lie within the scenes themselves, each of which has a slightly different style to it that suggests different story styles. The first murder opens the movie. It is approached in the most horror-like serial killer format. A young couple is in their car at a lover’s lane. A car pulls up behind them with its lights off, and then drives off. Even when the killer is only in his car, he behaves like Michael Myers from John Carpenter’s original “Halloween”. He returns and kills them coldly, without emotion or even any talk. There is no explanation for his action.
For the second murder, we get a very different scenario even though it also involves two lovers. This time we see the killer, he speaks and instead of coldly and silently killing them, he assaults them first. This kill is something more akin to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” or Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left”. The fact that the male victim survives is also in line with this theory. This time the killer is human. He acts with anger, especially toward the woman. He’s more tangible, more real than during the first murder.
I’ll skip to the fourth incident for my next example. This scene takes place after the killer has established himself as a presence in the media. The public has developed ideas and opinions about him. The way the press has let the killer have a voice has created a legend about him. This would be the only incident depicted in the movie where the killer doesn’t claim a victim. His would be victim is a woman driving at night with her baby. The set up is like one of those classic campfire stories where you’re told about someone driving at night and a car is flashing lights behind them. This parallel reflects the legend that has been built up around the Zodiac killer. By this point he’s as much urban legend as that story. Even the way in which the woman and her baby both survive seems the stuff of urban legend.
Finally, there is the murder of the cab driver. This is the only murder to take place within the city limits of San Francisco. The kill is quick and methodical. It is confirmed as a Zodiac killing because he takes part of the victim’s shirt to prove it was him when he writes into the paper about it. This is the one that is fact driven and it reflects not a horror aesthetic, but as police thriller one. This seems like a murder that might be committed in a film like “Dirty Harry”, which of course was also based on the Zodiac killer and also gets a nod later in Fincher’s film when the lead detective and Graysmith attend a special police screening of the movie before its release.
Read my original review here.