David Fincher’s 2008 film Zodiac has grown to be one of his best, if not one of the best cinematic offerings of the century.
To fully appreciate Zodiac, you have to watch it more than once. On the first viewing, you should focus on the story, the plot, and the red herrings. The twisting tale of the Zodiac killer — a serial killer who tortured Northern California with his sick games for more than a decade — is one that is not easily unraveled. It’s a disorienting story. And Fincher does a lot to contribute to that. He plays with time and place to confuse you and put you into the headspace of the characters. They’re who you should focus on next. How do they grow throughout the story? Why do they make the decisions they make? It’s not always an easy question to answer. Lastly, look at the craft. An entire semester of cinematography can be taught from this one movie. DP Harris Savides shoots the film with empathy for its characters. You can understand a scene without even listening to the dialogue by noting the camera placement and composition of the scene. You can feel the emotion of a scene through Angus Wall’s editing. However, it all goes back to the way Fincher mixes these elements. So, watch it a fourth time. Then you’ll understand why this is not only Fincher’s best film but one of the best movies of our generation.
The tale of the Zodiac killer was never one that would easily transfer to film. Despite the violence of the attacks, the publicity of them, and the rigor in which the investigation was handled, in reality, the breaks came slowly and there was never a clear progression when it came to the case. If anything, the most cinematic facet of the story were the multiple red herrings during the investigation. So, how did David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt fill out the nearly three-hour running time? While the story of the Zodiac was a huge part of the movie, as was the investigation — a large chunk feels like All the President’s Men or Heat, which follow people who are good at their jobs doing their jobs — the main focus is the characters. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) frames the story as a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who is on the periphery of the Zodiac case when the newspaper receives a letter from the killer demanding that a puzzle is published in the paper.
Eccentric journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) takes lead on the case for the Chronicle while SFPD Inspector David Toschy (Mark Ruffalo) takes hold of the police investigation. The first half of the movie plays like a police procedural — take Heat or The French Connection — and newspaper drama — like All the President’s Men or the more recent Spotlight. It’s a thrilling whirlwind of facts and dead ends and terrifying attacks that increasingly adds to the sense of helplessness with the case. However, the second half becomes one man’s obsession — Robert Graysmith, specifically — with discovering thing truth. Not for any higher purpose. Simply because he craves the answer and eventually needs it.
Zodiac was a tedious movie to pull off. With a lack of action and a reliance on information being discovered and moved from place to place, it was difficult to make cinematic. However, when you look at it from a character level, it’s a full arc that makes sense and Fincher was able to make cinematic. A huge part of that is due to Savides near iconic cinematography. At some point, it’s kinetic — the first Zodiac letter arriving at the Chronicle office for example. Other times, it’s emotive — Graysmith speaking with a potential suspect in his home may be one of the greatest exercises of cinematography in movie history. It’s the combination of the two that paces the movie in a way that makes it feel like there’s more action happening than there actually is. That doesn’t mean that its set pieces aren’t thrilling. Those scenes demonstrate Fincher’s patience — it contributes to the nearly 3-hour running time without feeling unnecessary. When the Zodiac strikes, Fincher portrays in calculated scenes that mirror the killer’s own process. He expertly uses camera placement to feed the tension. One of my favorite examples is the picture above. He doesn’t add music or quick cuts like he did in Seven. He’s slow and deliberate. It makes watching those scenes almost unbearable in the best way possible.
The movie also boasts one of the best ensemble performances in a thriller. Robert Downey Jr. mixes his carefree attitude perfectly with a genuine journalistic curiosity. As the character evolved during the film, Downey is able to maintain a ghost of the character’s previous life to heartbreaking effect. The same goes for Mark Ruffalo. In particular, his chemistry with Anthony Edwards is what makes his character and performance work. Chloe Sevigny also does great work in her limited screentime, which still has an impact. However, the two performances really stand out. John Carroll Lynch — who does similar creepy work in The Invitation — sends chills down your spine with his enigmatic portrayal that becomes more sickening each moment he’s on screen. Jake Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, is endearing, which is essential to the role and to the last half of the movie. As Graysmith falls further into his obsession with the Zodiac, it becomes easier to feel alienated by his character. Instead, you feel sympathetic for him. His hunger for the truth is infectious.
I think the acclaim for Zodiac only increases from here. Ten years ago, the film was received rapturously. However, the weight of its cinematic importance has only begun to be appreciated. Even with more popular movies like Fight Club and Gone Girl, and more uniformly acclaimed movies like The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I believe Zodiac is going to be the Fincher movie to be studied, remembered, and revered most highly. It proves that digital can be as cinematic as film and that long running times, lack of action, and information overload are just minutia when compared to the real goals of the film. Those goals are emotion, the visual language, and the power of cinema that we don’t often stop to appreciate.