Zodiac (2007): Fincher’s Epic-Scale Psychological Thriller

Based on the true story of the serial killer who terrified the San Francisco Bay Area and taunted authorities in four jurisdictions with his letters, “Zodiac,” David Fincher’s movie is an epic-scale psychological thriller, a sprawling American masterpiece that represents his best work in a decade, since “Se7en.”

Though not as gripping and tightly focused as “Se7en,” “Zodiac” is a more ambitious film, spanning more than two decades and encompassing a huge ensemble of at least 20 speaking parts. Stylistically, too, “Zodiac,” is a point of departure for Fincher. With the exception of two or three scenes, the film is not as grisly or macabre horror in the mode of “Se7en,” nor is it a genre picture in the vein of “Panic Room,” which was narrow-minded and confined to one space and few characters.

A massive undertaking, thematically and narratively, and visually, “Zodiac” continues to explore in a serious yet also darkly humorous way ideas that have prevailed in all of Fincher’s pictures, such as professional commitment and emotionally intense obsession.

Richly dense, on one level, Zodiac” is a psychological thriller revolving around the desperate search for a serial killer who terrorized the Bay Area for decades. On another level, it’s a wonderfully detailed procedural policier, delving into the routine work of cops and detectives. On still another level, “Zodiac” is a compelling newsroom story– two of the central characters are employed at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Acting-wise, “Zodiac” is also a major achievement. There is not a single weak performance, from the top all the way down. Though all four leads give solid performances, the one who shines through is Robert Downey Jr., as the eccentric crime reporter Paul Avery. With some luck and justice, Downey’s work should be remembered at year’s end for critical kudos and Oscar considerations (Downey has never won an Oscar!).

Overall, Fincher has made a mesmerizing picture that recalls the most significant movies of the 1970s (for some critics, it’s the last “Golden Age” in American film), when most of its story is set. “Zodiac” recalls films like “The French Connection,” “Klute,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day’s Afternoon,” “The Conversation,” “All the President’s Men,” and “Network.” The best compliment I can pay Fincher is to suggest that Sidney Lumet, Hal Ashby, Sydney Pollack, Allan Pakula, and Coppola, to mention the decade’s masters, would be proud of his intriguing picture, which as of today, is the best American film of the year.

Before analyzing the narrative and characters, I’d like to point out that “Zodiac” runs the risk of being (mis) perceived as shapeless, due to its sprawling, locale-shifting and time-changing structure. Taking its time, the film boasts a running time of 154 minutes, during which numerous plot points, twists, and turns occur, but in a more realistic, less structured, predictable, or glossy Hollywood way.

This must have been a conscious goal, for Fincher conveys in minutia detail the daily work of detectives and journalists, which for the most part is routine, often dull and frustrating, and above all, calls for an enormous patience and endurance.

Scripted by James Vanderbilt, “Zodiac” is based on the real-life cartoonist Robert Graysmith’s (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal) two published books about the case: “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked.” With more than 400 million copies worldwide, “Zodiac” is now in its 39th printing; “Zodiac Unmasked” is in its seventh edition.

The film’s central motif is that of obsession– its nature, costs and rewards–as reflected in the individual and the collective domains. Fincher shows how haunting down the hunter becomes the obsession of four different men, each engaged in the case with his own personal agenda, professional resources, and idiosyncratic personality. The quartet’s lives are literally built and destroyed by the killer’s endless murders and just as endless trail of ciphers and letters.

In due time, this obsession turns the quartet of men into ghosts of their former selves; some give up, while others continue. But the film is nonjudgmental, and Fincher doesn’t necessarily side with–or praises–those who will not give up until they get to the bottom of the problem, digging in the process into their inner demons.

What unifies the necessarily episodic and fractured text is a single (more-or less) point of view. Most of the events are seen from the perspective of San Francisco’s cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who plays an instrumental role in the investigation. The youngest of the wild bunch, Graysmith is the wild card and most idealistic member.

A shy editorial cartoonist, initially (but also initially), Graysmith doesn’t possess the cache and expertise of his seasoned and cynical colleague at the San Francisco’s Chronicle, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). Additionally, Graysmith lacks Avery’s connection with San Francisco Police Department’s ambitious Inspector Dave Tosci (Mark Ruffalo) and his low-key, meticulous partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).

Though working under the same roof, Graysmith doesn’t know well Paul Avery, the Chronicle’s star crime reporter. However, what Graysmith does have is boundless energy, passionate commitment, and later on, nearly self-destructive obsession. He’s also the one who comes up with a crucial insight that no one else anticipated, one that appeared August 1, 1969.

It all begins when a crudely written “Letter to the Editor” arrives in the day’s pile of mail. It’s one of the three letters penned to the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Vallejo Times-Herald. The letter’s content brings the newsrooms to a standstill. It says: “Dear Editor, this is the murderer” of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, shot to death December 20, 1968 on Lake Herman Road in Solano County, and the July 4, 1969 fatal shooting of Darlene Ferrin and attempted murder of Mike Mageau at the Blue Rock Springs golf course parking lot in Vallejo. The killer doesn’t call the victims by name, but he gives a long list of clues that only he–and the police–could know.

Each newspaper paper is given part of a cipher which, when decoded, would reportedly reveal the murderer’s identity. It is followed by a threat–publish the letter or more would perish. No killer since Jack the Ripper had written the press and taunted the police with clues to his identity. It may be a dubious achievement, but Zodiac had raised the bar for homicidal psychopaths in the U.S.

The movie (not the story) begins with a pre-credits recreation of the murder that took place on July 4, 1969. Fincher is an expert at such stuff: With brief, deft strokes, he creates a scary, suspenseful sequence. Then the story jumps to four weeks later, when the first letter arrives.

Since the plot is really thick, throughout the film, Pincher inserts title cards of the specific time and place, yet another device that recalls vantage movies of the 1970s.
The title cards, which are very precise (three hours later and so on), are not only useful, but ironic, too, in terms of what happened to the major players in real-life, including the suspected killer.

A turning point occurs, when a couple in Salinas decode the message, but it’s Graysmith, a cipher amateur-enthusiast, who decodes the letter’s hidden intent, a reference to the 1932 silent film, “The Most Dangerous Game.” More letters and threats follow. On September 27, 1969, Zodiac strikes again. Hooded and armed with a gun and sheathed blade, he stabs to death Cecilia Ann Shepard, and leaves for dead Bryan Hartnell, when the young couple had a picnic at Lake Berryessa in Napa County.

One month later, October 11, 1969, the killer comes to San Francisco. Taxi driver Paul Lee Shine is shot in the back of the head in the posh Presidio Heights neighborhood. Three days later, a fifth letter arrives, the most ominous of all. Zodiac tells the police they could have caught him that night. Worse, school children are in the cross hairs of his gun sight. He threatens to pick them off as they step off the school bus. With this alarming note, San Francisco becomes a city in panic–literally.

Zodiac the killer inadvertently turns detectives Toschi and Armstrong and reporter Avery into overnight celebs. In these chapters, Fincher deals with the whole notion of fame in the 1970s, an issue that’s become only more relevant with time.

For at least half of the story, Graysmith remains committed to his armchair sleuthing from the sidelines, injecting his input when Avery follows. Zodiac is always one step ahead, covering his tracks, peppering his lettered taunts with more threats. Unfortunately, infamy eclipses fame, as Toschi falls from grace, a frustrated Armstrong moves on to another line of work, and Avery leaves the paper altogether, crippled by his drinking and drug addictions.

In the last two reels, which are terrific in terms of suspense and plot, when all the other protags have resigned and/or given up, Graysmith continues on his own, sacrificing in the process his young wife (Chloe Sevigny) and children. Early on, he’s a single, devoted father with custody over his boy. Significantly, as the story unfolds, Graysmith transforms from a man of ideas (if you will), or man holding a desk job and spending time at libraries, to an obsessive man of action, who risks his life in pursuing leads to the bitter end.

There are some horrific sequences, one in the basement of a lead suspect, a projectionist of the film “Most Dangerous Game,” which might have been seen by the serial killer in his theater since he continues to refer to it in his conduct and letters.

Chronologically, most of “Zodiac” takes place between 1969 and 1972, before jumping ahead to 1976, 1979, 1980, and finally to 1991, when the story per se ends. In due time, Zodiac no longer reveals his targets, and he disappears completely from the scene between 1971 and 1974, during which copycats spring up coast to coast.

But as of the 1980s, the key suspect is still out there, and Graysmith is still obsessed with the case, harassing Tosci and the others men, who don’t want to hear about the killer anymore. The movie ends on an emotionally satisfying way, by disclosing Graysmith’s breakthrough and the arrival of his great moment, a moment that would forever change all the lives concerned since the brutal murder in 1969, a generation ago.


A Paramount (in US) and Warner (international) release and presentation of a Phoenix Pictures production.

Produced by Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer, James Vanderbilt, Cean Chaffin.
Executive producer: Louis Phillips.
Directed by David Fincher.
Screenplay, James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith.


David Toschi – Mark Ruffalo
Robert Graysmith – Jake Gyllenhaal
Paul Avery – Robert Downey Jr.
William Armstrong – Anthony Edwards
Melvin Belli – Brian Cox
Bob Vaughn – Charles Fleischer
Mel Nicolai – Zack Grenier
Sherwood Morrill – Philip Baker Hall
Sgt. Jack Mulanax – Elias Koteas
Zodiac 4 – John Lacy
Ken Narlow – Donal Logue
Arthur Leigh Allen – John Carroll Lynch
Captain Marty Lee – Dermot Mulroney
Melanie – Chloe Sevigny
Al Hyman – Ed Setrakian
Templeton Peck – John Getz
Charles Thieriot – John Terry
Carol Fisher – Candy Clark
Duffy Jennings – Adam Goldberg
Officer George Bawart – James Le Gros