Counting two books and a battery of interviews among its source materials, Zodiac digs under the skin of the story of a real-life serial killer who terrified the public and perplexed law enforcement in the San Francisco Bay Area beginning in 1969. On Aug. 1 of that year, three local newspapers received letters claiming responsibility for several fatal shootings and another attempted murder. The letters contained details that would have been known only to the killer, along with a cipher—of which each paper was given only part—that the writer claimed would reveal his identity. More killings were promised if it was not published.
The “Zodiac,” as the killer would dub himself, seemed, in spirit, like London’s Jack the Ripper for his brazen, police-taunting mannerisms. A couple from Salinas, Calif., would crack the basic cipher, but the Zodiac’s identity remained elusive as the body count continued to rise: 13 of them, by the Zodiac’s claim. And letters continued to pile up, directing threats at even school children and providing fuel for the fire of the killer’s self-celebration.
Director David Fincher (Panic Room, Fight Club, Se7en) says that the crimes of the Zodiac, which still remain unsolved, have enthralled him for years, even as a young boy growing up in the Bay Area. That personal tie, perhaps, prompted him to create what he calls “the most informationally packed [movie] I’ve ever seen.”
This is not a Hannibal Lecter-style horror/thriller flick, then, that seeks to put you behind the eyes of a psycho killer and make you squirm as he does his dirty deeds—though it is brutally violent at times. What Fincher attempts here is not really an examination of the Zodiac, but rather four people absorbed in his case. Inspectors Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong sift through endless suspects and dead-end leads in an investigation that reduces their personal lives to a faint memory. San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery fares no better for his high-risk, gun-wielding brand of “story research.” And at that same paper, editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith channels his Eagle Scout-derived code-cracker enthusiasm into a full-fledged campaign for justice, risking his life and his relationship with his family along the way.
Skilled detectives Toschi and Armstrong are dedicated to their pursuit of the Zodiac Killer. And the film’s lack of 24– and CSI-style sensationalism elevates and illuminates their commitment to justice, due process and bringin’ down the bad guy. Twice Toschi throws out stray comments that denigrate the way movies (Dirty Harry is referenced) don’t get it right in this regard. When Armstrong eventually quits the case (after years have gone by and the trail is ice cold), his decision is made in the interest of spending more time with his family.
Before totally giving himself over to his personal investigation, Graysmith shows signs of being a loving and involved parent. He accompanies a child to the bus stop and engages with his kids at meal time. At first he also attempts to shield his children from reports of the Zodiac. While driving his son, Graysmith changes the radio dial to tune out details about the killer. And when he and his son begin to watch a TV call-in program supposedly featuring the Zodiac, Graysmith turns it off when the talk becomes too grisly. At work, colleagues notice Graysmith’s generally upstanding character. It’s explained that he doesn’t smoke, drink or cuss.
On the radio, callers discuss whether the Zodiac is a Satanist. One estimates that he certainly couldn’t have a Christian background. The killer’s nickname and use of ancient symbols suggest his fascination with astrology and/or the occult.
One suspect is said to have sodomized children, and, in his home, police uncover several hardcore porn magazines, the covers of which are shown briefly. There’s a reference to a naked fondue party, and a short scene features a cross-dresser. It’s said that in his articles Avery dubs the killer a “latent homosexual.” The Zodiac makes a crude sexual reference in one of his letters. When a young couple go parking on a date, the man asks the girl about her husband. The f-word is hurled as a sexual insult. Toschi is seen in his underwear.
Actress Chloë Sevigny sheds some light on the kind of violence found in Zodiac by sharing with teenhollywood.com how she felt about reading one of Robert Graysmith’s books. “Before I started the picture,” she said, “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll read it and try to get into where my husband in the movie’s mind was, what he was obsessed with and what he was dealing with, day in and day out,’ and I couldn’t. I got almost through half of it and I had to put it down. I was like, ‘I just don’t want to read about this anymore.'” Indeed, the Zodiac killings depicted here, while taking up a very small portion of screen time, are unspeakably merciless.
When the Zodiac guns down a young couple parked at a lookout, the girl’s face and the car’s windows are shown splattered with blood. The Zodiac hogties another couple, threatens them with a handgun and feigns walking away. He returns to stab them repeatedly with a knife. The woman struggles and screams while the blade is shown piercing her back, stomach and chest.
A cab driver is shot point-blank as he sits in his car. Later we see cops examining the gunshot wound as his body hangs from an open car door. A frightening near miss involves a young mother and her infant. After sabotaging the woman’s car, the Zodiac Killer offers her a ride to the nearest service station. He announces coldly that he will throw the woman’s baby out the window before killing her. Passersby find her standing in the road, panicky, bloody and disheveled, having barely escaped.
Additionally, detectives and journalists spend quite a bit of time discussing the murders. And the Zodiac’s letters supply disturbing images, taunts and warnings. These include blood-stained shirt swatches from the murdered cabbie, descriptions of bombs and a threat to “pick off kiddies” getting off a school bus.
The f-word is used about 15 times, the s-word half that many times. Jesus’ name is abused nearly a dozen times; God’s is combined with “d–n” once.
Avery is a hard drinker, smoker and drug abuser. And his behavior is shown to be ruining his health, career and personal life. At one point, he and Graysmith (who is said elsewhere to be a non-drinker) down hard liquor late into the night in a smoky bar. Several other characters smoke, including Toschi and a mother of an infant.
To varying degrees, the journalists and police officers pursuing the Zodiac fail to guard themselves against becoming crippled by the weight of the unsolved murders. Graysmith, despite having the most altruistic motives of anyone involved, allows his investigation of the killings to become a full-blown obsession. He quits (loses) his job, pushes his wife and kids away, risks their safety, etc. And as his “interest” grows, his discernment wanes. Once protective of his kids’ emotional wellbeing, he ends up enlisting them as assistants as he desperately accumulates information about the Zodiac.
Much has been made of the exhaustive story research that went into creating Zodiac. In developing the project, David Fincher and others pored over thousands of pages of documents, interviewed surviving victims and retraced the killer’s steps alongside officers who worked the case. Says the director, “We backed everything up with documentation, our own interviews and evidence.”
Co-producer Bradley J. Fischer praises Fincher for also getting “to the psychology of what motivated the people who inhabited that world.” Fischer goes on to say, “It is a most human thing to want to know what can’t be known. It is a compulsion that exists in all of us.”
Zodiac clearly excels at comforting that compulsion. It was also crafted in an effort to document a historical era, and it can be easily said that this is a film that carries the potential of deepening our understanding of who we were and are as a society.
Time‘s Richard Corliss, however, is compelling when he suggests the filmmakers had less admirable motives. “There’s no nice way to say it: movies love murderers,” he writes. “Producers may claim the killer’s story is a cautionary tale, but they revel—along with the villain and the audience—in the sick grandeur of a hit man, a supervillain, a serial killer. The psycho creeps toward his victim; we can’t watch, and we can’t turn away.”
When the Zodiac first demanded that his ciphers be printed, newspaper editors gave in. But as time passed, wiser heads prevailed and they decided to stop obliging him. The Zodiac also wanted a movie made about him, writing in one of his last known missives, “I am waiting for a good movie about me. Who will play me?” The answer to that question, unlike the question of the Zodiac’s own identity, is now a matter of record: Richmond Arquette, Bob Stephenson and John Lacy.
But it’s not the Zodiac’s demands and questions that should interest us; it’s how we respond to them—and whether we should continue to oblige them after all these years. As Entertainment Weekly put it, “It’s possible that he could be sitting next to you in the theater.”