At the time of writing, the film has sat comfortably in the 'Top 10 Most Viewed Films' list on Netflix since its release last week. This current mainstream popularity could be perceived as coinciding with the success of other prominent true-crime documentaries and films, with Zodiac simply being an early progenitor of what would become a successful formula. Instead, it is arguably the masterwork of one of modern cinema’s most revered and influential directors.
Zodiac details the rampage of the eponymous serial killer and how a city was enveloped in hysteria by a single man. Fincher meticulously recreates San Francisco across two decades beginning in 1969 and populates it with authentic characters embroiled in the case including renowned detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the real-life inspiration for Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968).
As much a police procedural as a newspaper film in the style of All the President’s Men (1976), Zodiac’s demands to publish his cryptic letters at various news outlets attracts the interest of reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) and socially awkward cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). What begins as either professional obligation or intellectual curiosity for the three central characters descends into obsession and, as the years unfold, all are changed irrevocably.
Amongst the many great strengths of the film is the pervasive mood throughout. By punctuating the exploits of the characters with re-enactments of the Zodiac murders there is a palpable sense of danger and unease in the background. Rather than fetishizing these incidents (as would happen in the hands of lesser directors) these set-pieces are forensically rendered. Fincher orchestrates the celebrated Lake Berryessa sequence without music, the camera a still and distant witness to the attack unfolding on a young couple in the middle of a bright day.
The effect of stripping the expected cinematic flourishes is unsettling as the horrific events are rendered in stark normality, exacerbating the helplessness of the characters and the gravity of the events. Fincher’s restraint, both in terms of limiting the number of these homicidal episodes and also failing to embellish them with tropes expected in the “serial killer” sub-genre, including his own film Seven (1995), creates a backdrop of tension that lingers throughout the film and emphasises the importance of the investigation taking place.
This is not to say that Zodiac is "uncinematic." In a particularly Hitchcockian scene we find Graysmith slowly realise that the contact he is meeting may have more to do with the Zodiac case than originally thought. This scene alone, as Graysmith’s obsession draws him knowingly into danger, challenges anything in more renowned films such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991) in terms of generating tension.
The re-emergence of characters into the forefront of the film is handled with subtly and tonal consistency
In a film that distills over twenty years of events into a running time approaching three hours it is remarkable how coherent and engaging James Vanderbilt’s dense, riveting script is. Names, dates, locations and theories are posited rapidly throughout the film, but with clarity and a sense of purpose as Fincher places us alongside the investigators more successfully than any film in recent memory. The script’s economy does not sacrifice character in service of a more watchable film either. We observe the corrosive nature of the case with Paul Avery’s arc in particular demonstrating poignancy. As Avery, Downey Jr's charismatic performance steals every scene he is in without the sense of gimmickry baked into more recent performances.
Furthermore, an unusual aspect of the script is the oscillation between character perspectives as time goes on. The re-emergence of characters into the forefront of the film is handled with subtly and tonal consistency, allowing us to observe their progression and failings, professionally and personally. It is interesting to contrast the accomplishments of this film with the most recent work of Fincher’s contemporary Christopher Nolan. Both Zodiac and Tenet (2020) are complex and expository but only Zodiac succeeds in matching the intricacy with an interest in character, theme and audience comprehension.
The nature of murder is at the heart of Zodiac. Through Graysmith, Fincher portrays the human need to understand something inherently inexplicable. Graysmith states “I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye, and I need to know that it’s him”. As true-crime podcasts and documentaries increasingly populate their respective charts and series such as “Unsolved Mysteries” are rebooted for armchair detectives in 2020, it is clear to see that our society shares Graysmith’s morbid fascination.
Regardless of the context, Zodiac is a modern classic that achieves excellence in every department, from production design to editing, and deserves the mainstream acceptance that it is currently receiving 13 years late.
Featured Image: IMDb