Speculations of the Zodiac killer’s true identity have sent his most ardent followers into a labyrinth of fragmented stories, clues, and uncertainties. Seeing that the true identity of the infamous serial killer was never discovered, it remains one of our nation’s greatest mysteries, one that has inspired films, music, and books for over forty years. Perhaps its most accomplished incarnation came in David Fincher’s 2007 film “Zodiac,” a police procedural starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo that served as a factual retelling of the events leading up to and resulting from the string of Zodiac murders that took place in San Francisco during the 1960s and 70s. But more importantly, “Zodiac” is a meditation on the art of filmmaking and the dangers of obsession after experiencing a slowly deteriorating career rooted entirely in the search for perfection in an imperfect medium.
“Zodiac” was Fincher’s first project after a five-year hiatus from filmmaking. His last picture, 2002’s “Panic Room,” was shot with the Panavision Panaflex Platinum, a 35mm film camera that he had used to shoot two of his previous films, 1999’s “Fight Club” and 1997’s “The Game.” Fincher recalls the production of “Panic Room” as being an “arduous” process, one that was supposed to work on a smaller scale than the 150 location production of “Fight Club.” Instead, it snowballed into something much bigger than anyone anticipated, resulting in one of Fincher’s biggest shoots to date. The 120 day shooting schedule of “Panic Room” prompted Fincher to take a break from directing in order to reassess his priorities as a filmmaker and return with a clear mind and an even clearer vision.
With his return to the screen, Fincher took advantage of the new technology available to filmmakers. Shooting the film with the Thomson VIPER FilmStream Camera, a digital camera that the director also used on his 2008 film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Fincher was resurrected, donning a new visual personality. As a result, “Zodiac” represented a massive shift in his career, one that brought him from the realm of cult filmmaker into that of a director of great power both in his ability to tell a story and his ability to shoot one.
Interestingly enough, Fincher was hesitant about directing “Zodiac” after the ferocious success of 1995’s “Se7en,” going so far as to say that he didn’t want to make “another serial-killer movie.” What makes “Zodiac” so interesting, as a result, is how much of the focus is actually on the Zodiac killings. Instead, Fincher turns his camera on those who were involved with the investigation of the Zodiac instead of trying to understand the killer himself. Detective Dave Toschi, who is played by Mark Ruffalo and was apparently the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s portrayal of the titular character in 1968’s “Bullitt,” and San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, who dedicated much of his career in the early 1970s to reporting on Zodiac, are among the main focuses of the film, and the attention to detail regarding the character development is really what makes the film worth watching over and over again.
Still, Fincher’s film is based heavily on Robert Graysmith’s book “Zodiac,” which was published in 1986 after more than a decade of tireless research. Graysmith, who was a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when the Zodiac murders were first being reported, is played by Gyllenhaal, who is referred to as a “boy scout” during a conversation between Robert Downey Jr.’s Paul Avery and one of his superiors. Graysmith’s job is a perfect description of his character. In the office, Graysmith is never taken quite as seriously as his peers. In the world of arts and entertainment, cartoons are seen as childish and menial exercises to divert the attention of any young mind who will submit to them. But being heavily involved in politics reveals an almost unhealthy obsession with following information and following up on how it affects those who are involved. And while Graysmith is never seen with much regard by many of his co-workers, he takes matters into his own hands and utilizes his relatively unimportant position at the paper as an asset to gain access to information that others would not be able to due to jurisdictional issues and egotistical vendettas.
As a narrative structure, “Zodiac” is split into two parts, those being the scenes before and after the Zodiac’s four year hiatus. The film opens on a bleak, grey San Francisco, a city known for its dreary weather. The night is July 4th, 1969, and two young people, Mike Mageau and Darlene Ferrin, are murdered in Darlene’s car by an unknown assailant. From there, the narrative evolves into a story of obsession, both from the Zodiac and those investigating him. Most of the scenes are shot with a grey and dark blue color scheme to accentuate the glum nature of the setting, save for scenes involving Robert Graysmith, a young and curious party who hopes to crack the case. Whenever he is on-screen, there is slightly more color and vibrance. Graysmith’s enthusiasm about the case has a literal effect on the color scheme of the film. But since it can be argued that the film’s first chapter has no singular perspective, the addition of color in Graysmith’s presence is slight and barely noticeable. However, once the film’s second chapter begins, everything changes.
Dramatic recreations of true-life murders tend to soften up the roughest edges for the sake of marketability. Fincher’s “Zodiac” is the antithesis to those films, displaying violence from the Zodiac’s perspective, which is to say it’s almost fetishized in its brutality. Never daring to turn a blind eye to every gruesome detail, Fincher exposes how desensitized audiences have become by depicting brutality that is rarely seen on the screen. The confrontational tone of the film is maintained until Graysmith becomes the film’s focal point in the final hour. As “Zodiac’s” second chapter begins, prefaced with a title card that reads 4 Years Later, there is an instantly noticeable shift in tone. The colors are brighter, the music is more playful, the dialogue sounds more scripted. As a viewer, it’s jarring to see that “Zodiac” has become the film it spent its first 90 minutes mocking. But it quickly becomes apparent that it’s not the tone that’s changed, it’s the perspective.
Changing the focus from an ensemble piece to a more focused examination of Graysmith’s investigation of the Zodiac killings is reflected in the tone of the film. Graysmith is now the rookie detective that Dave Toschi was two decades ago, or the fresh-faced reporter that Paul Avery was before his alcoholism sent him into a frenzy of missed deadlines and eventual unemployment. What is perhaps most disheartening about this change in tone is that, eventually, the film returns to the hopelessly grey and blue color scheme that it started with, signifying that Graysmith, like his peers, has been defeated by the Zodiac. He may have escaped with his life, but whether or not his sanity is intact remains to be seen.
From the perspective of Fincher, it could be interpreted that Zodiac’s four year hiatus relates to Fincher’s five year hiatus from filmmaking; one that he emerged from with a new zest for directing that was tested, once again, by a lengthy and laborious production schedule. Fincher is a director that is often too ambitious for his own good. Working with new digital technology, the requirement to take a break every time the camera needed a new reel was completely eliminated. The script was so long that, to avoid cutting important scenes from a potentially three-hour film, Fincher had his actors recite their dialogue even faster to make sure everything fit within the film’s 157-minute running time. As a result of all these expectations, some members of the cast and crew, including Robert Downey Jr., revolted against Fincher’s non-stop work ethic. Downey Jr. in particular displayed his rebellion by filling mason jars with urine and leaving them around set.
For all of its detail regarding the who’s, where’s, and why’s of the Zodiac killings, “Zodiac” is as much about a deranged murderer as it is about the plight of the artist. Seeing that much of the film’s content is related to film itself (one of the case’s primary suspects worked as a projectionist in a movie theater; “Dirty Harry” is seen as being based heavily on the Zodiac killings; Dave Toschi’s association with “Bullitt”), it’s not preposterous to think that Fincher’s story of the world’s most elusive serial killer is also a reflection of his career and his own struggles as a film director. It’s obvious that Fincher wasn’t interested in making another serial killer movie, so by adding a subtext in which the film is really just a comment on film, the result is cathartic for Fincher and endlessly entertaining for viewers, who are treated to one of the most detailed, well-made, and distinguished thrillers of the 21st century.Continue Reading Issue #23