banner image

:: Zodiac

The serial killer one of the most hackneyed yet popular character in modern cinema, be they of the cannibalistic evil genius variety, or just your run-of-the-mill cross-dressing, fingerprint-removing weirdo. The result can be sublime and terrifying (Silence of the Lambs) or just plain awful (direct-to-video releases too numerous to mention). A clear warning sign that you’re in the latter is when the killer’s motivation is ridiculously contrived, usually a moment where someone exclaims, “Don’t you see? All these murder sites form an Isosceles triangle! We’re looking for a mathematician with acute childhood trauma!”

Fortunately, Zodiac is based on real events, so the details of the case, although sometimes bizarre, are never anything less than credible. Zodiac was the name the killer identified himself with when he first surfaced in the late sixties. He was notorious for letters and ciphers sent to taunt authorities and for a brief period he held the city San Francisco in the grip of fear. Oddly, David Fincher’s film resists the temptation to exploit the more sensational elements of the story in favour of meticulous exploration of the nature of obsession and the four men whose lives were torn apart from working on the case.

It’s a choice that will frustrate many people, especially those who have come to love Fincher’s trademark flashy camerawork, but this decidedly more mature approach allows his prodigiously talented cast to shine. The action is split between the cops investigating the case and the journalists covering it. As the two detectives Toshi and Armstrong, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards completely capture the frustration and disillusionment of a case that keeps throwing up dead ends. There is an unspoken bond between the two men, personally and professionally, but as the years drag on they cannot prevent the gulf the forms between them and are forced to question their dedication to what seems to be an impossible mission. Eventually it’s Toshi who comes out worse for it, mainly due to his stubborn belief that a breakthrough is just around the corner. No-one plays rumpled quite like Ruffalo and with his strange predilection for animal crackers and bowties, it’s a wholly memorable performance.

The screenplay is based on two books written by Robert Graysmith, who was a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when the Zodiac sent his first letter. He’s played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal who can do nerdy and misunderstood in his sleep, but it’s the scenes where he blindly pursues the truth, at the expense of his marriage and his sanity, that really carry the film through it’s cumbersome third act. He’s more than ably supported by Robert Downey Jnr. as the flamboyant journalist Paul Avery. Downey is so talented it’s scary, and he threatens to steal every scene he’s in.

The murders, although brutal and confronting, almost take a back seat to the inner turmoil of the people who lose themselves in the trying to piece together the clues to his identity. It’s almost nothing like a serial killer film at all; we never learn anything about the psychology of the man responsible, but what we do see is the effect that primal fear and unhealthy fixation can have on an ordinary people.