Note: This review is for the Director’s Cut version.
As audiences we’re used to detective stories where the good guys triumph and the bad guys lose. The typical formula has us following the killer’s trail, picking up clues alongside the investigators until they whisk away the unlikely suspect’s mask. A convenient denouement wraps all remaining threads.
Zodiac is not that typical detective story. It’s not about justice prevailing, harrowing climaxes or good defeating evil. Rather than treading familiar territory, the movie is a character study in obsession, disappointment and devastation. Our heroes—spoiler alert—do not win. For all their effort, they are left tired and broken. Marriages, careers and health lie in tatters while the killer remains free.
In terms of kill count and methodology the Zodiac Killer isn’t history’s most prolific, brutal or clever serial murderer. When Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his coworker Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) compare notes, they discover the titular killer has donned a piecemeal persona. He assembles his ciphers from beginner’s cryptogram books, takes credit for unrelated crimes, and lifts his infamous symbol from a watch logo. He’s an attention seeker, his notoriety running parallel with how much he has stolen or made up about himself.
Still, the mystery surrounding Zodiac haunts us almost 50 years after the fact. Like a modern-day Jack the Ripper, his legend lives on through hypotheses and theories, and we can’t help but keep playing detective. Countless authors claim they’ve found the “real” answer while DNA profiles are always confirming the final solution
In 1969, Robert Graysmith is a former Eagle Scout turned political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s living out his days as the humblest of humble unassuming single dads, the kind of guy who orders girly candy drinks at bars.
Then letters start arriving at the office. They’re from a murderer who has been stalking lover’s lanes in the Bay Area. Calling himself ‘Zodiac,’ he asserts his credibility by stating facts only the police know. Each letter comes accompanied with a cipher. An avid puzzle lover, Graysmith tries unraveling the mystery on his own.
Robert Graysmith is the real life author of the Zodiac books that are the movie’s source materials, and I admire the script’s insistence on not depicting him as a flawless hero. This is first evident when he starts decoding Zodiac’s first cryptogram, but then a married couple solves it over breakfast.
Across from Graysmith at the Chronicle is Paul Avery, the newspaper’s crime reporter. Eccentric, cynical and always loaded with a fast quip or dry witticism, Avery is the likable caliber of jerkass. Covering the story and theorizing on the clues is as much fun to him as Zodiac’s cat-and-mouse game. That is until Avery writes a suggestion that Zodiac may be a “latent homosexual,” Gonzo style, and Zodiac sends him a personal nastygram in response.
Inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are the case’s lead detectives. They are clean, skeleton-free, by-the-book investigators. Toschi’s only vice is a penchant for animal crackers. Their professional natures make it all the more devastating when Zodiac burns them out as well.
The four men set about dealing with Zodiac in their own way, Avery covering the stories, Toschi and Armstrong trying to catch the killer, and Graysmith developing an obsession with solving the puzzle. The 1970’s is a different world in comparison to 2017, lacking the forensic technology, instant communication or cooperation that would have a modern-day Zodiac captured within weeks or days. Police departments stick to their guns on jurisdictional boundaries, barely collaborating with each other. The killer eludes capture due to incompetence or miscommunication. After his fifth murder, two officers ignore a fleeing Zodiac because the APB has gone out for a black male.
In short, the Zodiac ends up being one lucky bastard. Because of careless mistakes and system flaws he remains at large while the good guys suffer in his wake. Leads turn to dead ends and red herrings.
The closest the investigators get is a suspect named Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) and if he’s not Zodiac he may as well be. Allen has a history of sketchy behavior, from stalkerish tendencies to outright child molestation. He also fits every detail the police have gathered. John Carrol Lynch plays Allen perfectly, as a man who looks like a dimwitted giant but could turn nasty at any moment.
Despite Allen being the most likely perpetrator, the evidence against him is too circumstantial. Nothing matches and he is ruled out as a suspect. Worn down and frustrated, the investigators carry on as 20 agonizing years crawl by. False accusations throw Toschi off the case. An increasingly paranoid Avery becomes a bitter alcoholic, divorced, unemployed, and wasting away on a houseboat.
Graysmith remarries and fathers more children as his obsession over the mystery reaches critical mass. Supportive of his Zodiac hobby at first, his new wife Melanie (Chloë Sevigny) feels more neglected and alienated. By the time Graysmith reaches the (supposed) bottom of the rabbit hole his marriage is over, and his apartment looks like my man cave after a video store liquidation sale.
Still he keeps digging and digging. Graysmith’s odyssey takes up the last half hour as the movie, as he makes phone calls, digs through file folders and arranges interviews. This drags down the pacing, but it also represents the long corridor of futility that has already knocked Toschi, Armstrong and Avery out of the game. Now it’s the cartoonist’s turn to chase shadows and suffer for it.
The Director’s Cut runs 2 hours and 42 minutes. That’s a long time for a movie about a killer who was never caught. In that regard, Zodiac is not for every one. Those wanting a satisfying conclusion after investing 3 hours are hereby advised to look elsewhere. But for those in on the idea, the long length serves an understandable purpose. As time goes on, we feel the passage of years, along with the growing sense of hopelessness permeating the air.
David Fincher’s direction, combined with Jame’s Vanderbilt’s screenplay, makes for a brilliant and creepy show. Vanderbilt lifts the story more or less verbatim from Graysmith’s Zodiac books, fictionalizing in a few places and even sprinkling on humor to break up the tension. Fincher has experience delving in darkness, having directed Se7en, Fight Club and Alien 3. Here his approach is less stylized. He doesn’t rely on clever editing or fireworks to convey uneasiness, yet his methods make scenes uncomfortable.
I’m no cop, but I imagine Zodiac is a far more realistic example than your average police procedural fare, a perfect expose on being stuck in a frustrating investigation. It’s a movie where good men with good intentions inadvertently pave the road to their own hells. When you chase the devil, sometimes the devil catches you.
FINAL GRADE: A-