4 out of 5 stars

With Seven (1995), David Fincher gave us a serial killer movie suffused with moral gloom and almost mystical symbolism. His next entry into the genre, Zodiac, looked different at first glance: it’s not only realistic but scrupulously based on true crimes, and much less ambiguous in its support for its protagonists. 

Newspaper cartoonish Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), who conducted a long investigation into the unsolved case of the Zodiac Killer, and their police counterpart, Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), never come nearly as close to the dark side as Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman do in Seven.

However, although Zodiac grips one’s attention successfully on a literal level as an investigative procedural, which wasn’t really the point of Seven, it has its own darknesses too. The nigh-time suburbia of the opening scene may be lit up by Fourth of July fireworks, but we sense trouble in paradise even before the Zodiac Killer arrives: the young couple who’ll become his first victims appear uneasy, they’re harassed by other teens, the boy complains of being cold despite the Californian summer.

Throughout the movie, this feeling of things being not quite right persists; the killer himself seems to be not a one-off, violent intrusion into a perfect world, but the most visible symptom of more widespread evils beneath the surface. It’s no surprise that some of Zodiac’s most powerful scenes have the ambience of horror—the questioning of suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), a later encounter between him and Graysmith in a hardware store, and most of all Graysmith’s visit to the home of the simian Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), initially thinking him a possible source of information and then realising with sudden dread that he could be a suspect too.

And things aren’t quite right with our protagonists either. Avery, Graysmith, and Toschi all become obsessed with the Zodiac case in their different ways (joining the parade of obsessive Fincher characters from 1999’s Fight Club to 2014’s Gone Girl). Perhaps this movie is less despairing than Seven, but it certainly doesn’t set up the complete contrast of rational, sensible, respectable investigators against an aberrant killer in the way that much of the genre does, and indeed Fincher did with Netflix’s Mindhunter.

Starting with the murder of the young couple in 1969 and ending in the early-1990s, long after the Zodiac had (apparently) stopped killing, Zodiac puts Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith at its centre. He was a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle while Avery was its crime reporter, but Graysmith nevertheless took a lead role in investigating the case, his interest in puzzles aroused when the killer started sending coded messages to the paper; the movie is based to a large extent on his books, although it was also intensively researched by the filmmaking team. Unsurprisingly, it concurs with Graysmith in very strongly hinting that Allen was the Zodiac, while leaving just open other possibilities.

Allen died in 1992 and the evidence against him was only circumstantial, if suggestive; nobody’s ever been charged with the five definite murders linked to the Zodiac, who claimed to have killed many more. But Fincher’s film is more about the investigation than about the crimes themselves, in any case. We witness them, and two are particularly disturbing: the stabbing of a young woman at a lake where the killer is unrecognisable in his bizarre suit, and then the attempted murder of another woman and her baby in a car, where we never see him clearly. But it’s when he contacts the Chronicle that the film really gets going, signalling the turning point with a briefly lingering shot on the mail van bringing the day’s letters to the newspaper office, following the Zodiac’s missive as it makes its way through the office distribution system, right up to the moment where a secretary interrupts a meeting: “You need to see this,” she tells an editor.

For the rest of the long movie, Graysmith and Avery follow up clues for the newspaper while Toschi and his colleagues do the same for the police, sometimes hampered by bureaucracy; the resemblances between the newspaper and police procedural film genres are very much to the fore in Zodiac, and although the journalists and the cops don’t always agree, at times their investigations blend.

There are good leads and bad leads (rare humorous moments show members of the public offering far-fetched suggestions), with maps, letters, and codes. Zodiac is a film full of information, a film where information and knowledge are constantly under discussion, which nevertheless has a huge permanently unanswered question at its heart—and it’s this conflict, between knowing so much about the case and yet not knowing the one key thing, that makes Graysmith’s obsession so believable and the movie so compulsively watchable.

There are some great scenes, including a search of Allen’s trailer, many anxious meetings in the newspaper office, the murders themselves, and those other moments of horror. But it’s not a film of short highlights: Zodiac succeeds because it’s an immersive experience, hardly moving away from its main story (as we learn little of the characters’ personal lives), and keeping the Zodiac killings constantly in focus, and setting the saga in a completely convincing recreated 1970s America. (No doubt important to Fincher, who grew up near San Francisco during that time). 

It benefits from consistently fine performances, too, and though the screenplay does not delve far deep beneath the surface of Zodiac’s people, the actors all create coherent personalities for their characters. Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith is nervous in his new job at a big paper but also quite insistent when he knows he’s right; Downey’s Avery is the opposite, a seemingly confident, fast-talking, wisecracking reporter who proves to be harbouring real private fears.

Ruffalo’s police inspector, determined and even passionate but never overplayed, completes the central trio but many of the smaller roles also add interest to individual scenes and sections of the film. Brian Cox is magnificently self-assured as the celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli, who spoke to the Zodiac on the phone, and Philip Baker Hall is wonderfully tetchy as a graphologist called in to examine the killer’s letters. In a mostly male cast, Clea DuVall as a woman in prison who gives Graysmith information and Chloë Sevigny as his estranged wife also stand out.

The best of the lot, however, may be John Carroll Lynch as Allen (who was, curiously enough, first interviewed by a police officer called John Lynch). Is he an innocent, friendly, helpful man unsure why he’s being questioned, or a deranged serial killer barely able to conceal his amusement? It’s never quite possible to be certain, and the result is a performance which is distinctly chilling.

Zodiac performed only moderately at the box office, perhaps in part because of its length and its inconclusive, serious approach to its subject matter. There’s not a hint here of either Hannibal Lecter or Dirty Harry (1971), which was more loosely based on the Zodiac case. But it was well received critically, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, though it went oddly unrecognised at the Academy Awards. Manohla Dargis in The New York Times opined that Fincher’s “polished technique can leave you slack-jawed, as can his scrupulous attention to detail”, and that “rarely has a film with so much blood on its hands seemed so insistently alive”.

That is, indeed, what’s remarkable about Zodiac. It’s not particularly interested in the inner lives of people; to a large extent it is about evil and failure; it is never really happy, and at times it is horrible; yet it is so engaging on an emotional level, as well as being an intellectually fascinating tale of detection.

Most of its characters are likeable if not exactly loveable. Even more importantly, the sheer volume of detail, and the impression that we’re getting all of it rather than a carefully chosen, direction-pointing selection, means the viewer comes to feel part of their quest for knowledge in a way that few films inspire. And perhaps, ultimately, it’s precisely because it isn’t tied to the tropes of the genre (the decisive unmasking of the murderer, the final personal threat to the detective…) that it stands as one of the greatest serial killer movies.


frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: David Fincher.
writer: James Vanderbilt (based on the books ‘Zodiac’ and ‘Zodiac Unmasked’ by Robert Graysmith).
Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox & John Carroll Lynch.