Director: David Fincher
Writer(s): James Vanderbilt
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo
Synopsis: In the late 1960s/early 1970s, a San Francisco cartoonist becomes an amateur detective obsessed with tracking down the Zodiac Killer, an unidentified individual who terrorizes Northern California with a killing spree.
Zodiac was released in 2007 from David Fincher and strangely never picked up any major steam. It had an estimated $65 million budget and only grossed a little over $84 million. Only $33 million of that was domestic, so a majority of the money made for this movie was made overseas. This movie garnered zero awards love. According to IMDb, the only awards it did win were from the Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards (Best Director), the International Film Music Critics Award (Best Original Score for a Horror/Thriller Film), and the Il Festival Nazionale del Doppiaggio Voci nell’Ombra (Best Male Voice: For Dubbing Robert Downey Jr.). Were people frightened with the fear of having to relive a moment that was never fully solved, or, as David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) says in the movie, do people just not care like they used to.
The movie that Fincher crafted here falls under a term that is highly overused, but nonetheless powerful in its saying, and that is a masterpiece. He, and writer James Vanderbilt, managed to take what would be a great mystery on its own and make it real. This movie never sets out to answer any questions but instead decides to raise a few of its own. Why wasn’t Zodiac caught? Did he really commit all of the crimes? Was it Arthur Leigh Allen? Sadly, thanks to Leigh Allen’s, convenient, death in 1992 we may never know the full answer to this story. As it has, and always will be, one of the greatest mysteries in American History.
Making a crime film with this much realism and depth is a tall task for any filmmaker. However, Fincher doesn’t make a regular crime/thriller. Instead, he does something that, for most films, can destroy the very fabric of what the film stands on. This movie is a horror/thriller film at its core, but it also manages to be a mystery, history, and most importantly, a news film as well. What is so amazing about this film is that he never has to lean on one aspect, but instead, he pulls from each other sub-genre he manages to fit into this open-ended story. The movie is basically told in two halves. The first half being the more news/crime heavy, and the second half being the thriller/investigative side of the story. These two halves never collide with each other, but instead, manage to float down the same river to the same waterfall of questions we are left unanswered.
Each character is given their moment to really shine on screen, and each character is given a full arc within their specific time frame. Each of them is spaced out as if they are chapters in the story being told for this movie. We begin with Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) for the first bit of this movie and we see him with his attempt to solve this case. Being a reporter for the S.F. Chronicle, he follows leads and attempts to solve the case based on little to no evidence, but the things he has been told from “sources”. We watch him as the Zodiac slowly takes over his life. He eats at him from the inside because he wants so badly to figure this out, it ends up costing him everything. Then we have David Toschi taking on the middle section of the movie. Now, we focus more on the hard evidence and less on what people say “could be” the answer. Again, we watch how the thought of the Zodiac slowly tears at David to the point of losing his partner and being taken off the case entirely.
And then you have Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who wrote the book this movie is based on, hiding in the background for the first half of this film. While everyone else is trying to figure out the answer as fast as possible, he waits behind and slowly pieces together the puzzle that this film winds up becoming. Graysmith, a cartoonist for the S.F. Chronicle, doesn’t want to just look at one side of the story, but instead pieces together both halves of it. He is constantly finding leads, and then backing them up with evidence. He doesn’t want to just find the answer, but instead, he wants to complete the puzzle that Zodiac has set out for him.
Because when it boils down to it, that was always the goal from the very first cipher, “In this cipher is my identity”. All of this was a game for Zodiac. A sick and twisted game, but a game nonetheless. Graysmith was the only one who ever fully played the game, and even though we may never know who Zodiac really is, the ending of the movie alludes to Graysmith knowing he won the game, and maybe even Leigh Allen knowing he lost.
Final: No matter how the rest of his career goes, David Fincher can always live in the fact that he was able to bring one of America’s greatest mysteries to life. He managed to fill this mystery with wonderful characterization and a gripping story. A story that, even though we don’t get a clear answer, we are taken on such a journey that we can only believe what we see. When the question arises of, “Is this Fincher’s best work?”. For me, it is a resounding yes.
Current Tomato Score: 89%
Current Metacritic: 78
Current IMDb: 7.7/10
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.