There is always a reluctance to watch a movie that doesn't have a resolution. I don't feel the same about books for some reason; in fact, I have read books where the author died in the middle of writing them, so they just end. It's a bit frustrating, but if it's known ahead of time, then the truth is that it was the reader that made the choice to invest however much time it was into reading the book to get out of it what they could.
Movies are different thing. It doesn't take anywhere near as long to watch a movie as it does to read a book, but then again a book an be picked up at any time. A movie is, on average, two hours out of a person's life that they have to plan to sit down and pay attention to what is going on and hope that the experience is worth it. It's two hours of leisure in a world where we get little time to ourselves, and to have it ruined by everything proceeding leading up to nothing feels like a personal affront.
I wonder how many people thought that way going into Zodiac, director David Fincher's exploration into the infamous series of murders that stretched from 1968 to 1970 in the San Francisco area. The script, written by James Vanderbilt, is based on the book by former San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who is the central figure in the movie. While Graysmith's book made some logical assumptions based on his own research, and the main suspect that the Vallejo Police Department and San Francisco Police Inspector David Toschi were pursuing, the truth is the Zodiac Killer was never apprehended, and most likely lived out most of his life as a free man. The perpetrator, though still alive while Graysmith was writing his book, was most likely long dead by the time Fincher's movie came out.
We begin at the scene of the Zodiac's second murder on July 4, 1969, in which he shoots Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes) and Mike Mageau (Lee Norris). Mageau survives and is able to give a description of the killer, but it does not lead to any immediate arrest. Meanwhile, the Zodiac begins to taunt law enforcement by sending coded messages to them and to the San Francisco Chronicle, Examiner and other local papers. A second attempted double homicide at Lake Berryessa involving Bryan Hartnell (Patrick Scott Lewis) and Cecilia Shepard (Pell James), this time by stabbing, leaves Shepard dead, but Hartnell alive to give the well-known description of the hooded figure with the Zodiac's chosen symbol.
After the murder of a cab drive (Charles Schneider) in San Francisco is claimed by the Zodiac, Inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are put on the case, which is also being pursued by the Chronicle's crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). Despite not having anything to do with the crime desk or the articles on Zodiac, cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes interest due to his enjoyment of solving puzzles, and over the years becomes obsessed with the killings as the murders remain unsolved. Eventually, through interviews and research, he forms his own conclusions and publishes a best-selling book.
Fincher wisely shies away from making his own determinations, making it clear that the conclusions drawn are Graysmith's. He has numerous actors playing the part of the Zodiac, most of the time hidden in shadows or placed just off screen, except in the case where the killer wore his strange costume for the Lake Berryessa attack. John Carroll Lynch plays the man they most likely think it is, although it is made clear at the end the even though he fits perfectly in many ways, finger prints, handwriting analysis and, posthumously, a DNA comparison to saliva on one of the letters never produced a match. The problem is Zodiac also claimed numerous murders he didn't do, and part of what hindered the investigation was the sheer number of people that claimed to be the killer, as well as a number of solid potential suspects. Even since this movie was released there have been people who come forth believing that friends or family members may have been the Zodiac, with some having rather convincing evidence.
The role of Paul Avery was one of Robert Downey Jr.'s steps to returning as a serious actor, although his portrayal is probably not too far from what his life had been like before he got cleaned up. Gyllenhaal portrays Graysmith as a man that didn't exactly fit in with his colleagues and eventually drove his second wife away due to his obsession with his work. Meanwhile, Ruffalo plays the frustrated Inspector Toschi in sort of an old-fashioned gumshoe way, but since Toschi was the influence for contemporary characters like Bullitt and Dirty Harry, his portrayal may not be far off. All the portrayals are as accurate as Fincher could get, as is the multi-year investigation and the sense of frustration of not being able to wrap up a case where there is such an overwhelming amount of evidence collected that still seems to add up to very little.
Vanderbilt and Fincher have also gone to great pains to replicate what they could, basing the few murders portrayed on interviews and statements made by the survivors and not making suppositions about what happened in cases where that information isn't available. Most of what is presented is true, with a few embellishments for dramatic purposes - making Toschi and Graysmith friends at one point, for example, and somehow making Graysmith's encounter with his prime suspect less creepy than it was in reality. Typically when I see a movie is based on a true story, I suspect that the fact an incident happened is as far as the truth goes, but nothing else in the film is going to have any basis on reality. Take The Zodiac Killer for example, which was an exploitation film that sensationalized the case and largely made in a hopeful attempt to flush the killer out by toying with his ego.
Rather than being sensationalistic this is both a look into one of America's greatest unsolved murder cases as well as a tribute to those who tried to bring the perpetrator to justice. At this late date it is doubtful if there will ever be solid answers. The reason interest in this case still persists is that it is probably the closest we have to Jack the Ripper, where someone committed horrific murders and then simply stopped. We typically think of such killers as people who can't control themselves and, despite their cleverness, eventually get caught. The idea that someone could dabble with taking lives and then just move on and live out the rest of their years is more frightening than anything that could ever be put on film.
Time: 132 minutes
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo
Director: David Fincher