Suspense is the uncertainty of what’s about to happen. In those moments before something happening, we’re left with our own imaginations as to what’s about to occur. We’re left thinking about what could be around the corner or under the bed. We’re frustrated not knowing what’s in the box or the name of the killer. And it’s in these moments that we terrify ourselves. Sure, some horror movies and thrillers give us the payoff, revealing everything we need to know to have closure about certain characters or the story itself, but very rarely are we left in the dark, all alone, with our own devices and imaginations. With Zodiac, the 2007 David Fincher film detailing the search for the notorious Zodiac Killer, we fill the pieces of the puzzle in ourselves, and it’s one hell of a rewarding experience.
Zodiac is a movie that festers underneath your skin. You continually itch and scratch, trying to fight for that moment of comfort, only having it escape you as soon as you think it’s near. It’s a very slow-burning movie (and lengthy as well), but that build up is what makes it worth it. You’re sucked into this world, nay, transported back in time to an era where cell phones don’t exist and fax machines are just starting to appear. Your only ways of communication are pulling over to use a payphone, mailing a letter, or going to someone’s house to ask them questions. While it’s a reminder of the past, it’s also claustrophobic. So imagine that festering and itching in a confined space, with only little room to move. Oh, and a killer’s on the loose. That’s Zodiac.
While you itch away in discomfort, Fincher sends us on a dark journey to figure out the identity of the Zodiac Killer. On one hand, we witness the killings. We see the killer hunt his victims, taunting them as he continually taunted the police and newspapers. Playing mind games with them, teasing them with safety or comfort, just as you seek while you itch and squirm. Then the violence strikes and we see the killer snuff out the lives of men and women. These scenes are not the most graphic and Fincher is even nice enough to pull away from time to time, but it’s not for the sake of censoring or ratings. It’s here that the previously mentioned suspense comes into play even further. While we are taken away (just briefly) from the crimes themselves, we fill in the gaps with our own imaginations, envisioning the gruesome pictures of what’s unfolding just off screen. We take ourselves to a dark place we never thought we would go to, and we scare ourselves even further.
Now, the film is not all about the killings. From the outside, Zodiac would easily be assumed as a “whodunit” mystery thriller, with the good guy chasing after the killer to make sure justice is served. However, the bulk of the story of the film is about everything else that fell through the cracks surrounding the case. Yes, we get a good look into the inner workings of the San Francisco Chronicle and the reporters trying to solve the case, as well as the same city’s police working their asses off to stop the killer at large. But what carries the film is the story of one man’s obsession with tracking down the Zodiac. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a cartoonist for the chronicle who finds himself in deep when it comes to the case, obsessing over every detail to figure out the identity behind the killer. He loses his family, his friends, and yes, his own sanity in the hunt for the man. Over ten years we see Graysmith deteriorate, mentally and physically, as those around him have long given up on the search themselves, thinking it to be a lost cause after so much time has past. His conviction drives the story forward and our sympathy (and morbid curiosity) is what leaves us hanging on to every detail and clue. Even when you know how the entire thing ends, you’re left just as obsessed with the killer as Graysmith. And again, it’s a place we’d never thought we’d find ourselves.
As I mentioned, David Fincher completely transports us back to the 1970s. The offices and environments are something you’d find pulled from the past and plopped into a movie studio and the attention to detail only draws us in even further. The communication aspect plays a large part of the hunt for the killer, with letters and phone calls exchanged left and right, but the lack of technology to properly track where the bits of information are coming from. At first, investigators and reporters haphazardly handle evidence as though the forensics side of things doesn’t exist (hell, for the most part it didn’t). There are also several moments where a cell phone call or an email would save time, energy, and even lives had they only existed. It adds another layer of frustration to the entire ordeal, and makes you wonder if we could ever have a killer like the Zodiac in a day and age like today. In fact, the Zodiac hit San Francisco at the eve of newer technologies, and had he gone on his killing spree just a few years later, his name would just be whispers in the archived editorials of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Along with Fincher’s masterful directing and the complete immersion into the 1970s, the other strongest part of the film is the cast. Jake Gyllenhaal proves that he’s more than capable as not just a leading man, but a genuine actor. He’s come a long way since Donnie Darko and his performance was one of the best to come out of 2007. Filling up the rest of the heavy-male cast (another testament to the film’s setting) is Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, and several other faces you recognize but can’t quite place their names. In a bit of genius casting, as well as based off of talent, we witness a handful of guys we love off the screen thrown into these dangerous situations. This only adds to the continued suspense as we don’t want to see any of the men harmed in any way. With that being said, the standout performance is from John Caroll Lynch, who plays one of the suspects the police believe to be the Zodiac Killer. Most would recognize him from Fargo or The Drew Carey Show or usually playing the comic relief in other more dramatic films. Seeing him take a bite of the thriller genre, sinking his teeth deep into the role, is downright terrifying. While the film does not point an exact finger at a particular individual, many clues lean towards Lynch’s Arthur Leigh Allen and the uncertainty of his actions, as well as his behavior leave you feeling a bit uneasy.
Overall, Zodiac is one of the most masterfully crafted films in recent memory and easily Fincher’s strongest (and looking at the main’s career the “best” is quite impressive). Zodiac transcends the cinema, your computer, or your living room and plants a seed of obsession into your mind, leaving you all too curious about the real events that inspired the film. I’d bet you can’t go too long after watching the film without Googling the names, places, and the killer himself, finding yourself just as eager to solve the case. I’d go as far as saying that Zodiac is far more than a film. It’s an experience that not everyone can handle. But, if you have the patience, the intelligence, and most of all, that creeping imagination, you’ll find yourself rewarded, scared, and most of all, disturbed.
a phenomenal cast led by the underrated and underused Jake Gyllenhaal (seriously, he can act, people!)
an atmospheric, slow-burning environment that pays close attention to detail and takes you down the rabbit hole even further
a constant sense of dread that you can never escape, even once the credits roll, and the violent and disturbing gaps you fill with your own imaginings