The Zodiac Killer is one of the most infamous unsolved cases in history. He taunted the police with letters written in newspapers where he keeps count of his killings, making threats, and generally being cryptic. With a case of this infamy and still unsolved, it must have been a goldmine for films. Well, it was not, surprisingly enough (unless you count “Dirty Harry”). Looking at books written about the case, David Fincher made it his next project. That it bombed is disappointing, but not unexpected. After all, this is not your typical serial killer story.
The film occurs not on the hunt for Zodiac, but in the newspaper that had to post his letters. Our three dramatis personae are Robert Graysmith, Inspector David Toschi, and Paul Avery. Avery is the crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who is trying to figure out how to best react to these disturbing letters. Toschi is an inspector assigned on the Zodiac case. And Graysmith is a political cartoonist who decoded the first Zodiac letter. They all share a target and they all attempt to find the killer.
This is not an action film. It is a mystery, a thriller, but not one with any concrete answers. Our actual protagonist is Graysmith, who wrote the books that the film is based off of, and we see his accusations, but never a real answer. That may be disappointing, but the film isn’t actually about that. The film’s true theme is obsession.
Avery starts becoming paranoid and becomes a drunk because of the case. Toschi is demoted for what his superiors believe is forging false evidence. Graysmith, however, becomes more and more engrossed in the case, to the point where his wife leaves him, taking the children as well (obviously) and he alienates Avery and Toschi, who were previously on his side. The more the film continues, the more obvious it is that the true theme is obsession, one over a case that began 29 years before the film’s final scene and 38 years before the film came out.
And who better to portray obsession than Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr.? Jake plays Graysmith and shows him going from a guy who likes decoding and sees the endeavor as interesting to a man steeped in obsession and sadness. Ruffalo plays Toschi as a cop who grows more cynical as the film progresses and trying to leave the case behind him. And Robert Downey Jr.? Pre-“Iron man”, he shows the beginnings of his Tony Stark persona here, which he pulls of with flying colors. Specifically, the slow decline into drunken navel-gazing and paranoia that has become a staple of his since returning to the limelight.
At 2-and-a-half hours, it may be too long for most people. With no actual conclusion on the serial killer case, it may be unsatisfying to most people. But this film rewards those who watch it. David Fincher still had his touch when making this and it show. It is a practice for his next masterpiece, but a practice that makes most other actual attempts pale in comparison.
Directed by David Fincher
Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue
162 Minutes (director’s cut)