Three Dog Night’s “Easy To Be Hard” plays moments before the Zodiac killer’s July 4, 1969 attack on a young couple in a lover’s lane parking lot. This tragic event sets into motion director David Fincher’s methodical adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s “first-person diaries” about the search for the notorious “Zodiac” serial killer that terrorized the Bay Area in the late 1960’s and early ‘70s.
With Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men as his guide, Fincher conducts the police procedural with masterful economy that eloquently accumulates facts gathered by various police departments and by two members of the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial staff. Towering performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, as staff newspaper political cartoonist Robert Graysmith, and Mark Ruffalo as famed homicide Inspector David Toschi, carry the film’s precise tension to its gratifying but uncertain conclusion.
David Fincher has said that with Zodiac he wanted “to make the last serial killer movie.” That lofty aspiration translates into a strict avoidance of the subject’s intrinsic potential for exploitation by approaching it as a newspaper story wrangled over by preoccupied detectives and journalists. At every level of production and execution, Fincher meticulously crafts the true-crime mystery as a social phenomenon that touched the lives of many and ruined the lives of more than a few.
Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a timid but inquisitive divorced dad when we first meet him setting out for his workday on the open floor of the Chronicle newsroom. Almost a month after the Zodiac’s parking lot attack, a letter arrives at the newspaper’s offices from the gunman with a cipher containing Greek symbols, Morse code, weather symbols, alphabet characters, astrological symbols and Navy semaphore.
An editorial meeting is called to discuss the killer’s demand that the cipher be published on the front page of the next day’s paper lest he kill again. An inveterate puzzle-solver, Graysmith impulsively copies the code and detects that the Zodiac will not reveal his name. The paper’s flamboyant crime-beat reporter Paul Avery (brilliantly played by Robert Downey Jr.) takes notice of the eager newcomer’s facility and the two men form an uneasy bond around their mutual interest in solving the case. Graysmith goes one better when he connects a Salinas couple’s interpretation of the cipher to a 1932 RKO film entitled The Most Dangerous Game, about a Russian Count who hunts people on his private island.
More than a year later, a brutal knife attack on a couple enjoying the beauty of Napa Valley’s Lake Berryessa sets the siren pitch of crimson fear that infects Graysmith when the Zodiac sends a letter threatening to kill school children. James Vanderbilt’s judicious script front-loads the violence that peaks early on with the Zodiac’s murder of a cab driver in San Francisco’s wealthy Presidio district.
The murder ushers in Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) who will suffer the burden of hunting for a killer without the benefit of collected evidence from other police precincts where the killer struck. The fact of police departments not sharing information, in order to claim credit for solving the case, creates a dysfunctional societal atmosphere akin to Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole.
In the years since his last films (Fight Club and The Panic Room) Fincher seems to have abandoned his cinema of cruelty in favor of a more restrained goal. Zodiac brings his distinctively meticulous talent to the fore as he prompts intellectual and emotional responses from the audience without allowing for a second of distraction.
There is an unobtrusive perfectionism in Fincher’s telling of a difficult story. He knows where reality and cinema meet, and when to push the boundaries of each. MTW