Robert Downey Jr
Philip Baker Hall
James Le Gros
John Carroll Lynch
“Finish this”, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is told by his wife Melanie (Chlo Sevigny) shortly after she has taken the kids and left him, fed up with his obsessive investigations into the Zodiac murders and the risks that it poses to the family.
“Finish the book”, Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) will tell him a short time afterwards. All this is in 1978, near the end of David Fincher’s meticulously researched true-crime docudrama Zodiac, and almost a decade after the film’s opening sequence set during the Independence Day celebrations of 1969. In fact it would take the real Graysmith nearly another whole decade to finish his book ‘Zodiac’, first published in 1986, and since then he has written a second book on the case in 2002 (‘Zodiac Unmasked’), and recently announced his intentions to write a third, ‘Shooting Zodiac’, about new evidence unearthed by screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s extensive research for the film’s adaptation. The case of the Zodiac killer has, it would seem, never really been brought to a close.
In 1969, amidst a series of ruthless, if apparently unconnected murders across four different jurisdictions of Northern California, a figure calling himself ‘the Zodiac’ writes to different newspapers with letters, often accompanied by obscure codes, in which he claims responsibility for the crimes, taunts the police, and promises further atrocities. Detective Toschi and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are placed in charge of the San Francisco end of the investigation, and Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr), a hotshot reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, begins conducting his own inquiries, while Robert Graysmith, a shy cartoonist with an interest in puzzles, hovers at the periphery with his own set of insights and intuitions.
Yet as the search for the killer goes on, the case will grow out of all proportions, as police miscommunications, false leads, lost witnesses, unreliable experts and copycat crazies all help to muddy the waters of an already over-complicated manhunt. Years later, when the case has all but gone cold, Graysmith will set about researching a book on the killings, in the hope that he might “jog something loose” that others might have missed in the reams of accumulated evidence. His pursuit of the Zodiac’s identity will destroy his marriage, undermine his sanity, and endanger his life, as he gropes about for a way to tie up so many loose ends – until finally he finds a solution with which at least he, if not a court of law, can be satisfied.
Zodiac is a film about a disparate group of obsessives (chief amongst whom is Graysmith) who do not know how or when to finish. Though their essential character flaw, their doggedness is also what marks them out as heroes of sorts in a world that is less polished and perfect, less amenable to certainties and solutions, than movies would ordinarily have us believe. And as the film itself, at a whopping two-and-a-half hours, struggles to find its own finish, it takes viewers into the outer limits of a genre better known for its narrative economy and tense pacing.
For while Zodiac may start out seeming a regular enough serial killer movie, time soon takes its toll on the conventions of the genre as much as it does on the characters. At the beginning, the captions that punctuate the film register the passage of mere hours or days between one scene and the next – but it is not long before we have become accustomed to reading “four years later”, or seeing two scenes separated by the timelapse vision of a skyscraper rising from the ground. Events do not so much build to a furious climax as decelerate to a virtual stop, and as in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003), this is a real-life investigative drama revolving around frustration and irresolution rather than visceral thrills and neat closure, with all the main players either getting out, falling apart, or losing themselves in a labyrinth of tail-chasing speculation and insurmountable piles of data.
The distance between Zodiac and a bog-standard serial killer flick can be gauged precisely in the scene where Graysmith and Toschi first meet one another. It is in 1972, at a cinema where Dirty Harry is showing. Inspector Harry Callahan was in fact loosely modelled on Toschi, and his antagonist the ‘Scorpio killer’ was similarly based on the Zodiac killer – but Toschi walks out before the screening is over, disgusted at the protagonist’s gung-ho gunplay and utter disregard for “due process”. No such behaviour is to be found in Zodiac, where even the killings, far from being ‘sexed up’, are shown in all the banality of their violence – which, ironically enough, ensures that they have an impact far more powerful than any stylised bloodbath. This is the very opposite of Fincher’s breakout serial killer hit Se7en (1995), replacing that film’s gritty apocalyptic sensationalism with something far more measured and mature.
Fincher’s earlier films – from Se7en to The Game and from the inimitable Fight Club to The Panic Room – have all been distinguished by their directorial flourishes and all-round flashiness. Zodiac, however, is different, marking a new stage in the director’s development; for here the action is always restrained and the art, though abundant, remains concealed. An unassuming brand of naturalism is the key note, evoked by the bleached out colours, the casual period detail, the excellent nostalgic soundtrack and the modest ensemble performances (even Downey Jr resists grandstanding). Although Fincher is working with potentially the most difficult of materials – to wit, a script that is almost 90% exposition, scenes that are often set months if not years apart, a duration well in excess of the standard 90-minute template, and a story that foregrounds confusion, irritation, impatience and despair – the director manages the pace brilliantly, making the viewer feel as frustrated, paranoid and, most importantly, driven, as the film’s characters. And he not only reinvigorates one of the most notorious cold cases of the last century, but also one of the stalest genres.
So while the spate of murders with which Zodiac deals may never have been conclusively solved, no-one could claim that Fincher’s film lacks finish.