Five years have passed since the last time a Fincher directed picture graced our silver screens. Like an alcoholic who must resort to drinking other brands when one of his favorites is out of stock, I have had to make do this last half decade. Oh, it hasn’t been such a terrible time: I had some Spielberg, sampled some Mann, quaffed a bit of Boyle and even downed some Polanski. But there was always something missing until Friday, March 2nd, 2007.
Zodiac, a reputedly very faithful version of two books by Robert Graysmith, is the sixth film to bear the Fincher label, and the Fincher label means quality. Whether as a first time director working without a completed script (Alien 3), or a veteran with one of the most singular stories ever told (Fight Club), David Fincher has always delivered the most exquisite craftsmanship. His most recent opus is no exception.
The Zodiac killer of California is one of the most infamous serial killers in history. Never apprehended, he claimed credit for as many as 37 slayings, though there are a mere five canonical victims. He was active in the late 1960′s to early 1970′s (and perhaps for longer than that), during which time he taunted police with letters sent to newspapers, letters filled with bravado, dire threats and purposely misspelled words. There were suspects, but never enough evidence to put anyone away. When the prime suspect died in 1992, long after the last killings and letters, the case was closed for all intents and purposes, though the file remains active to this day in certain police precincts.
The movie follows four main characters as they become involved in the murders committed by the Zodiac. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist and author of the source material who becomes more and more obsessed with finding the identity of the killer. Mark Ruffalo plays David Toschi, inspiration for the Dirty Harry character and detective assigned to track down the killer. Anthony Edwards plays William Armstrong, Toschi’s partner, and Robert Downey Jr. plays Paul Avery, fellow journalist of Graysmith who covers the crime beat for their newspaper.
The four men deliver solid performances, especially Downey Jr., and the various relationships between them keep the energy level of the movie running high and our interest hooked. Even the minor characters shine with the help of the director who has always displayed an ability to get a scene to feel right. One prime example is the opening scene where a man and woman are parked together in the middle of nowhere and wind up Zodiac victims. A clumsier director might choose to fill the scene with appalling schmaltz to get us to feel sorry for the characters when they are killed. Anyone who has seen a movie where the protagonist’s family has died and we get a flashback to a time when the protagonist was playing with his children and wife and everyone was just impossibly happy knows what I am talking about. Even otherwise solid endeavors fall prey to this trap, but Fincher adroitly avoids it. The characters are not ridiculously happy caricatures; they feel like real people in a real situation. This is an indispensable element for Zodiac, because it has some hurdles to overcome, not least of these being that the very element which makes the Zodiac killer so fascinating, the fact that it remains unsolved, is the very element which threatens to leave us feeling unsatisfied when the movie is over.
Another difficulty for Zodiac arises from its scrupulous adherence to the story the way it happened, or at least the way Robert Graysmith portrayed it to happen. Real life is not concerned with the requirements of a movie’s rise in action or its climax. Real life doesn’t care if the first act runs long, the second act fails to up the ante and the last act falls flat. For this reason the term ‘artistic license’ was invented for when storytellers remolded a true tale to better conform to the necessities of a story. Most movies based on real events and people take liberties with the facts (witness Braveheart, The Lodger, The Hurricane, Titanic, Cinderella Man, Serpico, Spartacus, Paths of Glory, any movie based on the Bible and, I feel quite confident, 300). That Zodiac leaves itself at the mercy of the facts means we are likely to see a tale that strays from the orthodox story structure.
This would not be new territory for Mr. Fincher, and indeed it is exactly what happens. The first part of the movie switches back and forth between brutal killings, taunting letters in the newsroom and police procedure in the precincts. It’s enthralling, as it must have been when it actually happened, but it comes to an end with no real conclusion and the movie transforms into a different entity. When the killings stop and the letters become scarce, we are left with Robert Graysmith’s obsession as he refuses to give up the search for the killer.
During this next phase we see Graysmith pursuing many different leads and suspects. There are moments when the film threatens to run out of steam, but at just the right moment a new clue is turned up, or a new perspective sends a bit of a chill down your spine, or whatever is needed to capture interest. But for a movie that turns into a look at a man’s fixation with a murderer, there is only the most cursory attention given to Graysmith’s deteriorating relationship with his wife, an aspect that would be of interest for such a subject.
But that is the problem with the story: it is manifestly not about a man’s obsession with the Zodiac killer. There are too many other characters with ample screen time, too many scenes where Graysmith is absent, too much interest in other facets of the situation. Graysmith’s obsession is one theme of many. The movie is about the entire Zodiac phenomenon, but the Zodiac phenomenon itself did not wrap up nicely for the sake of a Hollywood flick. It starts as a murder mystery and a murder mystery it must remain, but shackled to the facts as David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt choose to make it, it cannot help but lose some focus when the actual investigation itself did. Left with no more murders, no arrests and the bulk of the plot already behind it, the movie of necessity doles out its plot points more sparsely and fills in the gaps with the one yarn left to it: Graysmith’s perseverance.
This resolve of the cartoonist turned amateur sleuth is a fascinating aspect of his character, but the movie works best when it is a mystery being solved and his fixation a single ingredient of a larger recipe. Even in the second part, after other characters have dropped out of the race and nearly everything that transpires has to do with Graysmith’s unflagging efforts, it is still the little clues and new ideas about the case itself which keep us going along. Graysmith’s obsession explains his actions and colors the picture, but does not itself become the main point of interest of the movie. It remains inexorably a murder mystery, as it must. Some transitions are beyond the prowess of even an artist like David Fincher. For a movie to begin as a tantalizing investigation into murder and wind up a study in the psychology of obsession would be a disaster. With all allowances made for hyperbole, it would be akin to seeing the first half of Terminator II and finishing with the second half of The Passenger. Fincher avoids this disaster by keeping the movie an investigation, however much that investigation comes to be influenced by a single man’s passion. Hence the focus on the dead ends and lack of focus on his marital stress.
It is beyond the scope of this article to address whether Zodiac should have remained so faithful to its source or whether more artistic license should have been taken. Fincher chose an accurate telling, and he did it with the deftness of touch, the uniqueness of vision and the proficiency of composition that has characterized all his work without exception. The challenges posed by the story’s structure is adversity overcome. Like John Stossel rising above his stuttering problem to become a renowned television journalist, Zodiac rises above its handicap to be a better movie than the vast majority of those which suffered no such impediments.