Flashback Films: Zodiac (2007)

By Mario Ricciardi

On the morning of Aug. 1, 1969, editors and select reporters from The San Francisco Chronicle finished reading the first letter signed by the Zodiac Killer. The then-unknown serial killer discussed his involvement in unsolved murders around the city and demanded the newspaper print the letter. The next day and for the following few years, San Francisco slipped into a quiet panic.

The film “Zodiac” isn’t about the city. It’s hardly about the police investigation. Zodiac is about a man with an obsession, not a faceless man slyly plotting serial killings and taunting the public — it’s about the infamous killer even less than the police investigation. The obsession is brought forth by bright-eyed political cartoonist Robert Graysmith and his relentless personal investigation of the killer.

Amid the unrest in San Francisco, a frustrated police investigation and the killings themselves, Graysmith’s growing absenteeism as a father holds just as much weight. What’s incredible about the retelling of this true story is just how fascinating the dead space is (no pun intended) between actual events. In fact, the last scenes of traditional action and suspense occurs right after the film is a third of the way over.

The film is dark, suspenseful and moody, but it gets away with it because of the intense attention paid to human interaction. The large majority of the film is made up of conversation and characters exchanging hunches and ideas and constantly getting these suspicions denied or fractured. Not only does it pay close attention to the nuances of human impulse, but it reveals one of the most difficult themes of human nature cinematically.

No, not serial killers. Scarier. The lack of closure real life often holds. One of the most important factors as to why the Zodiac Killer has lived on is because, despite media coverage and  eccentricity, the killer was never caught. Not only has he lived on in the popular culture, but he has also actually lived on, something very few famous serial killers get to do without the walls of a cell or an electric chair, something the film leaves the audience with.

Zodiac stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. in the 1970s. The entire cast turns in tour de force performances that are as equally entertaining for character development as they are for historical accuracy. Additionally, director David Fincher’s visual style is equally as palpable on screen as the actors themselves.

Zodiac is another entry into Fincher’s uncompromising filmography. For me, Zodiac is a turning point for Fincher. Shooting his first film completely on digital cameras, the director was able to achieve up to 100 takes for certain scenes, pushing performances to their absolute best. Robert Downey Jr. famously left jars of urine around the set in protest because of how few opportunities he could take to relieve himself.

Zodiac solidified Fincher’s position as the father of digital cinema. Sure, George Lucas is probably the grandfather and for totally different reasons, but David Fincher is definitely the cool dad. The film itself is a modern epic, clocking in at 2 hours and 42 minutes.

Zodiac tells the tale of an anonymous killer through the lens of a young artist discovering that obsession of any kind is dangerous, not just because of what it will do to you, but because of what it does to the people in your life.

????? (5/5 Penguins)