We hate to break it to all the 14-year-old boys and alt-right shitheads out there, but Fight Club is not the best film ever made. Nor is it David Fincher’s best film. The same is true of Se7en, The Social Network and Gone Girl – they’re undoubtedly great, but they’re not Zodiac.
10 years on, it’s a mystery how Fincher’s investigation of the still-unsolved spate of killings that shook San Francisco in the ’70s isn’t widely recognised as the masterpiece that it is. Sure, at the time it was critically lauded, but it still holds the lowest box office takings of any of his films, lower even than the lovely but undeniably weird The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It may have placed twelfth on the BBC’s list of the best films of the century, higher than any of Fincher’s other 21st century output, but that was also voted for by other filmmakers and critics. The debate over whether critics actually influence the majority of filmgoers or if they’re just fake news is one that’s been raging since time immemorial. The fact remains that it seems fated to be consigned to that ever-growing list of critically praised but popularly ignored masterpieces.
While Se7en is an earlier example of an expertly crafted police procedural thriller from Fincher, the more fantastical and horrific elements of that film are firmly in the realm of fiction, as entrancing as they are to watch. Zodiac, however, is real life. Fincher dials down on the procedural element, observing chief detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo); the journalist covering the mounting stack of murders, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.); and true crime enthusiast and San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose real life publications on the killer inspired much of Fincher’s approach. Three branches of investigation and intrigue, inextricably linked with one another thanks to the killer notoriously mailing several complex ciphers to the Chronicle.
The stellar cast give some of the best turns of their careers. Mark Ruffalo is superb as the cocksure and slightly mysterious Toschi, quietly siphoning off the limelight for himself in every scene he’s in. Jake Gyllenhaal is laying the foundations to his claim of being one of the finest actors currently working as the increasingly obsessed cartoonist Graysmith, delving deeper and deeper into the mystery and directly impacting his family in the process.
How Zodiac wasn’t seen as Robert Downey Jr.’s big comeback film is baffling; his turn as Tony Stark the following year is all well and good but Paul Avery still stands as one of the finest performances of Downey’s career to date. He lays on his familiar fast-talking braggadoccio as the film begins, but sinks into paranoia and self destruction as he is drawn into the mystery on a personal level against his will. Finally, as Fincher’s obvious candidate for the killer, is John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen. Known to many as the mild-mannered Norm from Fargo, here he is a dark and brooding loner playing his cards very close to his chest, utterly unrecognisable from Marge Gunderson’s sweet egg-fixing husband 10 years prior.
Fincher’s attention to authenticity in Zodiac is mind-bending, due in no small part to the fact he was allowed unprecedented access to the original case files. The handwriting on the letters sent by the killer is identical, the disturbing sack cloth overalls and mask described by a survivor to a police sketch artist at the time are brought to life as a deeply unsettling costume, and his chilling phone calls taunting detectives are exactly as described, right down to the weird drawn-out “byyyyyyeeeeeee” in one of them. Where possible, the original locations appear as they would at the time, even if that meant the planting of several colossal trees that were no longer at Lake Berryessa, just for the purposes of the film.
The art design of the film weaves a rich tapestry of authenticity as well; the colours, costumes and cars populate a fabulously authentic 1970s San Francisco, captured by cinematographer Harris Savides at the peak of his abilities. The browns, oranges and burnt siennas of the man-made materials contrast powerfully with the pervasive blues and greys of the natural environment the characters exist in, as if the Zodiac himself is a force of nature threatening to envelop their entire lifestyle. The craft that went into recreating the environments and objects that populated them from the time serve to lure us further into the world. We share in the paranoia and fear that gripped the area for a number of years, turning innocent lovers’ lanes and placid lakesides into horrific murder scenes, warping the region beyond recognition.
The sound is expertly crafted, with music supervision royalty Randall Poster curating one of the finest soundtracks of the century. The opening scene alone uses otherwise innocent songs to deeply unsettling effect. The film opens as a car cruises slowly down a street, 4th of July fireworks popping all around, the mellow sound of Three Dog Night’s ‘Easy to be Hard‘ mixing together with the all-pervasive presence of the Zodiac to create a woozy cocktail of uncertainty.
The scene soon focuses in on young couple Darlene McFerrin and Mike Mageau, and we witness a shadowy figure calmly fire a pistol repeatedly into their car, soundtracked to Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man‘. It’s the final nail in the coffin for a song that has, over the past 50 years, evolved from fantastical hippy fluff to a chillingly childlike warning about a boogeyman, one that will now forever be inextricably linked with the Zodiac.
Fincher’s obsessively crafted masterpiece echoes the real life Robert Graysmith’s obsession, as portrayed in the film itself and the subsequent real-life publication of his several books, as if it’s impossible to resist the morbid allure of such iconic and horrible events while they remain unsolved. Fincher invites us to become lost in the murk with him and Graysmith, and the hundreds of others who have fallen under the macabre spell of these events. From a humanistic viewpoint, why we become so fascinated with such acts is a question many of us would rather not necessarily give an answer to. From a cinematic perspective, we are all the richer for Fincher’s fascination as Zodiac is a truly hypnotic picture that deserves far more recognition than it has received this past decade.