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Zodiac: 3 Shades of Obsession

Written by Nithin Ramachandran

David Fincher’s Zodiac is a 2007 psychological thriller that follows the real case files and timeline of the infamous Zodiac Killer, one of the most well-known serial killers in the United States. Still an unsolved case to this day, the movie is based on case files from the series of murders and incidents related to the Zodiac that plagued the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 60s and 70s. On a micro level, the film follows the lives of three individuals who all become interconnected through their drive to find the Zodiac. These individuals are Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a respected homicide detective from the San Francisco Police Department; Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a crime writer for the San Francisco Chronicle; and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The film begins with the Zodiac’s first murder, depicted through a chilling and tense sequence at a lovers’ lane in Vallejo, California. What follows is a nearly three-hour-long chess game between law enforcement and the Zodiac, the narrative mainly being driven through the encrypted letters that the killer sends to the Chronicle. Fincher uses the setting to create a solid foundation for the film’s authenticity. From the diner and lovers’ lane, to the hustle-and-bustle of the San Francisco Chronicle mailroom, the first ten minutes of the film set the right vibe. Even the cinematography and color of the film invokes a gritty, older tone that gives it a certain nostalgia. The best testament to the times is Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Dave Toschi, and the gnarly sideburns that come with such a role.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Robert Graysmith cannot be praised enough. As someone who first saw Gyllenhaal in Spiderman: Far From Home, Zodiac exposed me to Gyllenhaal’s uncanny ability to bring life to characters that are seemingly one-dimensional. More specifically, it introduces viewers to Gyllenhaal’s niche role of odd and somewhat creepy characters (his performance in Zodiac is comparable to Nightcrawler, arguably his best performance). In this film, Gyllenhaal doesn’t just fill the shoes of Graysmith’s character - he embodies the political cartoonist’s personality, entertaining viewers with flashes of Graysmith’s quirks and obsessions. Viewers feel his determination at every moment but also his desire to protect his kids and spend time with his family. The character's personality is heightened through juxtaposition with Robert Downey Jr.’s Paul Avery: the two are polar opposites on all levels, so seeing them interact really highlights the quality of both actors.

Zodiac is about obsession, though some may prefer the term persistence. Audiences have seen detectives in every crime thriller drive themselves to insanity, but in Zodiac, this idea becomes the backbone of the story. This obsession is what drives characters in every second of their journeys without end. This obsession leads each character down their own dark path, with every member of the trio being forced to cope with the case’s futility in different ways.

The authenticity of the setting - Fincher was raised in the Bay area for much of his early life- solidifies Zodiac’s accuracy early on, something that is further developed through Fincher’s unconventional narratives techniques. In the very beginning, Fincher makes it obvious that this is no normal thriller. We see a curious Graysmith copy and attempt to solve the mystery of the first letter, but he is unsuccessful, losing to two random Chronicle readers that supposedly knew the extinct language. Fincher repeatedly surprises audiences by subverting common film cliches, making the film unpredictable. In being so authentic in its new approach to the crime thriller genre, Zodiac becomes stylish and fresh, while simultaneously highlighting how tough and random of a case this really was.

The Zodiac’s methodical approach to break every single cliche thrillers have at their exposal is mostly effective. Whether or not the result is a movie that ranks high on the entertainment quotient does not matter. It is a precious type of storytelling that Hollywood seems very much to be lacking and should be lauded for challenging the tried-and-true formula of crime thrillers.

The film’s authenticity, though, leads to one of the main issues: the apparent length of the film. Over time, I started to lose interest very much like many of the characters do with the case. No matter how excited Graysmith may have been as he came across each one of his revelations from the investigations, I was just hoping for the film to end. To add to the fire, the film continuously jumps forward in time with little to no warning. Viewers will be watching events that unfold over the course of a few months and then suddenly the film will just jump a year ahead. One can only juggle so much information in a movie at once, and Fincher, in his attempts to stay authentic, overloads viewers with information. These jumps in time make it difficult for audiences to form significant emotional connections to the main characters. For example, Dave Toschi is at one point as committed to the Zodiac case as Graysmith is, even going as far as feeding Graysmith confidential information that will point his personal investigation in the right direction. The next time we see Toschi, he has resentment for the Zodiac and treats it as just another unsolved case in the Bay Area. RDJ, Ruffalo, and Gyllenhaal all offer stellar performances, but the jumps in time make it difficult to sustain those connections throughout the whole film.

As the film drags on, even at moments where viewers may find themselves bored, Fincher always has a surprise up his sleeve that keeps viewers on edge. However, Fincher’s attempts to keep viewers on edge often backfire, creating deviations from the plot that often seem out of place or unnecessary. The main issue with Zodiac is its attempt to be a chameleon that shifts colors constantly to blend in and avoid being eaten. Worried that critics will express dissatisfaction with the film’s pacing, Fincher includes many scenes that rank high on the thrill quotient but do not serve a purpose in the film’s plot. Fincher will craft scenes that formulate a high amount of tension for viewers, but they lose their effect when they’re dragged on and end up offering little substance to the plot. On the other hand, some of the most important scenes occur early on in the film, with the majority of the thrills being released on audiences with two hours left in the movie. While such a style reaffirms Fincher’s commitment to authenticity, it leaves viewers confused about the film’s message at times.

For the entirety of the film, I sat waiting for the big reveal of who the killer was. The tension rises throughout the film, giving viewers a false sense of hope. At the end of the film, I’ve never felt so let down. The killer is never revealed, and the case is simply left to speculation. Even in movies that are “based on” something from true events, Hollywood likes to add in fluff to excite audiences. I, having watched too many cliched crime thrillers recently, kept my hopes high. Fincher’s commitment to historical accuracy is one that attests to a larger debate in Hollywood over the ethics of how factual directors make their movies that are based on true events. Unfortunately, though I thoroughly enjoyed the individual scenes where Fincher builds tension, as a whole, the film's pacing and lack of a consistent tone had a significant impact on my overall enjoyment, leaving me very disappointed at the end.

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that if not for the scenes where Fincher excellently builds tension, this would be a hard movie to get through. However, it still raises the question of the movie’s quality had it been approached with a consistent tone or timeline. Maybe it would’ve been an overly cliche-driven film, making this inconsistency something that differentiates Zodiac from other films in the genre. The parts are much better than the whole, the movie runs painstakingly long, and the constant mounting of evidence blurs the viewer’s basic understanding of the plot. Nonetheless, some will love the lack of cliches, the thrilling scenes, and methodical storytelling. The cinematography infuses life into this methodical thriller while also maintaining the distinct style Fincher has envisioned, proving that Zodiac is an unconventional thriller that still manages to keep audiences engaged while accurately portraying a historical case.