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On July 4, 1969, two young people were brutally shot on Lovers’ Lane in Vallejo, California. A call was placed with the local police from a man who claimed to be the shooter. This was the first in a series of murders that besieged the Central California region in the late 1960s to the mid 1970s. The killer would later be known as The Zodiac.
There have been many films that detail true events and actual case files such as Dahmer, Gacy, and 44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shootout, and while those films are somewhat accurate to what actually happened David Fincher’s Zodiac is one film that stands out. Not only is the acting top-notch and the writing is impeccable, but the attention to detail that Fincher shows us is something that will make you read into the case of The Zodiac itself. Starring a stellar cast which includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., and Anthony Edwards as men who become entwined in a case that is so bizarre that the film spans over many years.
David Fincher (The Game and Se7en) gives us a film that grabs our attention right from the start and even with the 158-minute run time, the film never drags or feel overlong. What is interesting is that the film is broken into sections. The first 40 minutes of the film detail the murders that the police can actually prove The Zodiac committed, then switches to each character to tell their story of how this one case affected them. We first see Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) who works at The San Francisco Chronicle as a cartoonist. Letters are sent to the police as well as The Chronicle and other newspapers from the killer who makes demands and wants a cipher printed in the paper or more people will die. Graysmith likes puzzles and even attempts to figure out what one of the ciphers is saying. He spends his time at the library doing research and eventually becomes obsessed with finding the killer.
We then turn to Paul Avery (Downey Jr.) who is a crime reporter who is interested in the case of The Zodiac. He intially excludes Graysmith from information relating to the case but later talks to him and communicates his ideas as to who the killer is. He drinks a lot and is seen as a loose-cannon among other people. Finally, we have Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) who investigates the murder of a cab driver along with his partner Bill Armstrong (Edwards). The crime scene doesn’t make sense based on the evidence that they find and the detectives recreate the scene in a way that is fun to watch and gives us questions that the detectives have.
Each character has equal screen time giving us a chance to understand what they are doing and making us feel their frustrations when nothing concrete arrives that points to an actual suspect. As the late great Roger Ebert wrote in his 4-star review, “Zodiac is All The President’s Men of serial killer movies.” When I first saw this film I was captivated by the sheer attention to detail which includes the clothing, the hair styles, and the case history; with which I felt as if I was an investigator myself during the 70s. David Fincher is one of my favorite directors and has crafted very thought-provoking thrillers such as Se7en, The Game, and Gone Girl. With Zodiac, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie, but you are living an experience and that experience comes from the people involved in the investigation that dragged on for years and years.
Although critics were impressed with the accuracy of the film and Fincher’s direction, the film was hardly a fiancial success. Working on a budget of $65 million, with North American and International Box Office sales, Zodiac brought in only $84.8 million. Some critics did note the film for being too long and lacking any action sequences but in my opinion this film didn’t need car chases or shootouts because that stuff didn’t happen with this case. What we are given in a dialogue heavy film that features a fantastic cast and focuses more on the characters instead of bloody crime scenes. What I enjoyed most is the the film focused more on the investigation aspect of the case rather that bloody murders committed by a man who terrorized the city of San Francisco and surrounding cities.
David Fincher is one of my favorite directors because the attention to detail he gives to his films and just how real they can feel. As much as I enjoyed Se7en for its dark material and writing, Zodiac has everything a crime buff can enjoy. It is a film about obsession, but two kinds of obsession. One is the obsession to understand why someone does what they do. How they can become so evil and harm innocents and what happens to you when that obsession takes over your life. The other obsession is the need to murder people and taunt the authorities to catch you. Zodiac is a film that is perfect to study not only for the case history but the characters that the actors play so perfectly. It’s not as wild as Fight Club or grisly as Se7en but Zodiac is a film that will keep you talking long after it’s over and perhaps like me, once it’s over you want to watch it again and again.