"I like killing people because it is so much fun. It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of them all.” This was said by one of the most notorious serial killers in America, the Zodiac. Directed by David Fincher, the film Zodiac (2007) is based on the 1986 non-fiction crime mystery book Zodiac by Robert Graysmith. In the late 1960s, the murderer claimed that he had killed 37 people and despite numerous investigations, the case still remains unsolved and no one has ever been arrested.
The film starts out with a sudden and brutal bloodbath, followed by another and another. The Zodiac sends multiple taunting letters of an enigmatic nature written using various ciphers. The Zodiac directly contacts the San Francisco Chronicle: “I want to report a murder…no, a double murder. They are two miles north of Park Headquarters. They were in a white Volkswagen Kharmann Ghia. I’m the one that did it.”
An underrated masterpiece of the 21st century, Fincher manages to make the entire investigation much more personal and thrilling. He imbues the film with a subdued tone unlike his previous works Fight Club (1999) and Se7en (1995), which exhilarate the audience with thrills. The title character of the film is the infamous Zodiac, but the film overall is not really about the murderer. The focus quickly transitions from the murderer to the personal lives of those involved in the Zodiac case—David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the lead inspector, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a bearded, smoking, alcoholic reporter, and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal).
The obsession behind Graysmith’s 13-year investigation is highlighted by Fincher’s original style of storytelling. He meticulously crafts each frame with visual and narrative information, accurately conveying the passage of time. His constant use of time—presenting days and dates at the bottom of the screen— underlines how quickly time passes in reality, but from Graysmith’s perspective, time moves slowly, and the case seems to drag him down as he obsesses over the murders.
In one interview with History vs Hollywood, a YouTube channel, Graysmith said, “Well, I didn’t know I was obsessed until this man (Jake Gyllenhaal) portrayed me and I didn’t realize I was deferential and shy but he nailed it.” He continued explaining that Fincher’s recreation of the details of the crime scenes and offices was incredibly similar to those of the late 1960s. “He wanted to make a newspaper film that accurately portrays the newspaper period with all the competition and brought back the entire chronicle of 1969. Every single item such as the phone and desk drawer literally felt like going back in time,” said Graysmith.
As the film continues to go deeper into the case, one cannot help but also become fixated and sometimes pause the film to research more about the Zodiac. This is due to the acting skills—Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance here is one of his best—and the editing that makes this movie incredibly suspenseful and rather fast-moving. With a running time of 156 minutes, the director had a purpose for making it so long. The narrative, transitions, and acting are all so perfectly crafted for the audience that the film rarely feels like it is purposely dragging its running time out.
▲ Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) watching the newsabout the Zodiac. PROVIDED BY POLYGON.
The intense obsession and desire to find out more about the Zodiac can be seen in not only Robert Graysmith, but also David Toschi and Paul Avery. Viewers can see that Detective Toschi, who is trying to solve the case, is always frustrated because all the evidence is circumstantial, while reporter Paul Avery, who always gets high and reads the Zodiac letters while lighting a cigarette, seems to be tense. Just like the poster which is filled with mist, as each of the characters gets more invested in the case, viewers can notice that they are starting to drown in it.
Because this film is based on a true story, it makes the film more exceptional and authentic. Unlike the structure of most narrative films, Zodiac avoids cliché chase scenes, grand finales and climaxes—rather it follows the painstaking process of police investigations. Still, it does not mean that the movie is not terrifying. Viewers will sit on the edge of their seats when Graysmith receives several unknown calls, only hearing heavy breathing over the phone.
Viewers might first admire Graysmith’s determination to catch the homicidal murderer only to realize that the film’s main theme is all about obsession and its side effects. Unlike many crime or investigative films, Zodiac is about what happens after everyone forgets about the murderer, except a dedicated few remaining to follow a trail that grows murkier by the day. The movie’s theme of obsession is perfectly represented through the characters, people who want to solve the case not to help the victims, but only to solve the puzzle.
In the end, not only do the characters go through an exhaustive investigation, but David Fincher and the others who made the film also had to go through a strenuous proce ss. The crew interviewed survivors of the Zodiac case, went through thousands of documents, and had to retrace the killer’s steps alongside the officers who worked on the case. Their work was not in vain, resulting in a meticulously detailed and suspenseful film.
Release Date: August 15, 2007
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.