Director: David Fincher
Writer: James Vanderbilt
DP: Harris Savides
Editor: Angus Wall
Score: David Shire
Producer: Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Ceán Chaffin, Bradley J. Fischer, James Vanderbilt
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, John Carroll Lynch, Robert Downey Jr., Elias Koteas, Anthony Edwards, Philip Baker Hall
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 38 min.
Many viewers of Zodiac probably go in with some relevant background information: though the Zodiac killer was never caught, Robert Graysmith, author of the book on which the film is based, believes he knows who the Zodiac killer is. The film follows Graysmith's pursuits, so while it doesn't necessarily blame anyone, it does single out a specific suspect. Yet Zodiac is still effective; it demonstrates that films work on much more than surprise.
Zodiac isn't about what might happen - or even who the killer might be - but what did happen, and how the world reacts to such things. Consider the second murder scene: the victims are tied up, under the impression that Zodiac is nothing more than an armed robber. We get extreme close-ups of their faces such that we can see their fear, but the careful tone of their speech also anticipates relief. They fear for their lives, but since they've done everything he asked, they believe they'll be left in peace. We, however, know that Zodiac is a motiveless killer; it doesn't matter that they've done what he said, he'll kill them anyway. This generates horror, not terror; that is, the pathos comes not from suspense, but from the fact that the whole situation is repulsive.
This horror comes from creating intimacy, then corrupting it. Every scene depicting a murder or attempted murder uses either proximity or isolated, confined spaces to establish closeness and privacy, then breaks away from that closeness after Zodiac's sudden burst of violence. We always know it's coming, but it's not disturbing because it's shocking; it's disturbing because it's perverse. The inhumanity of Zodiac's transgressions destroys basic expectations of decency. In all of these scenes, he remains with his victims for some time, hiding his true intentions; each of his crimes depicted in the film is, in some way, a breach of trust.
The actions and potential pitfalls involved with human interaction are the driving force of Zodiac. The first hundred minutes involve impersonal interactions, taking on a broad perspective that portrays the scale of a whole city. It follows cars making long treks through the streets, and lets lives chaotically overlap in both images and sound. All kinds of individual tics, agendas, belief systems, and inscrutable acts of misdirection are laid out before us as the morass of information the police need to sift through to find the killer. The police and the information they deal with are portrayed with literal distance between them, treating the case as an intrusion onto their lives rather than anything in which they'd actually want to be involved.
Of course, they don't uncover the truth. These first hundred minutes are followed by another hour. This last hour takes place years later, and follows just one character, Robert Graysmith, as he seeks out the Zodiac himself. Here the scale is much smaller, and the film's eye more personal. Graysmith does, after all, take a personal stake in the Zodiac case, despite its lack of relevance to his life.
Jake Gyllenhaal has Graysmith take up space awkwardly in places where he isn't welcome. He's hyperactive when he speaks, and he brings none of the emotion we expect when he reacts to other people. He's almost annoying in his apparent obliviousness. This may sound like I dislike his performance, but I don't; it makes Graysmith come across as childish and intrusive, divorcing his obsession with the case from any kind of justice or morality, as much as he himself may insist on it. (I don't mean that I take this as a reflection of the real Robert Graysmith's character).
Things come together more easily for Graysmith than they did for the police. But, by committing himself to the case, Graysmith becomes increasingly neglectful of his own employment and his responsibilities as a father. Though the last hour of the film is far less populous and focuses on Graysmith over all the other characters, the only real intimacy is between Graysmith and the mystery, which is reflected by how the film captures the act of his examination of the evidence.
Aside from detailing Graysmith's pursuits, the last hour of the film also shows the lingering damage the Zodiac case did to other characters' lives. Paul Avery, is shown to have become a sickly recluse, partially due to the stress of having been directly threatened by Zodiac years before. Mark Ruffalo's character, Inspector Dave Toschi, ends up demoted as an indirect result of his connections to the Zodiac case. Even before the last hour of the film, there are scenes that portray the continuing suffering of Zodiac's surviving victims.
This is where the film really has an impact: its simultaneous evocation of fragility and durability. Zodiac inflicted lasting damages, but society moved on more or less unchanged, almost completely ignorant of those damages. Graysmith embodies both: eventually, he's the only one left who cares about the Zodiac case, but he too disregards the damages; he's in it for his own benefit, and he's much more interested in the killer than the victims.
Really the film is mostly genre fare, but taking a showy, pulpy approach overall serves it well. It raises certain expectations, and when the film fails to come to a climax, it leaves us hanging instead with the lingering suffering of Zodiac's victims, or Robert Graysmith's callous behavior toward his family and the people whose help he enlists in his search. It doesn't need to spell out commentary because it allows us to experience the juxtaposition of real horror and Graysmith's obsessive behavior.
Some viewers feel that the film doesn't name anyone as the killer, while others feel that it's actually unambiguous about Zodiac's real identity. I don't think it matters; the film ends with two characters identifying Zodiac, and while neither is necessarily supported by evidence, it would change nothing if they were. The damage has been done. The very last thing that happens in the film is that the music from the opening scene - the first murder - plays a second time. There's no room for terror when everything's already said and done. But the horror is still there.