On August 1, 1969 three – almost identical – letters arrived at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the Vallejo Times-Herald newspapers. Their contents detailed the brutal attacks and murders of Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday in December 1968, and Darlene Ferrin in 1969.
The author of the letters did not include his name but instead attached a cipher to each. Once decoded, he claimed, his identity would be revealed. Threatening to kill more people if the letters were not published, the serial killer, who would eventually become known as the Zodiac, would go on to terrorize and destroy (often indirectly) the lives of numerous people for almost three decades.
Zodiac is a film that chronicles the events that began with those first murders in 1969 and the investigation undertaken by the San Francisco Police Department and a political cartoonist at the Chronicle, Robert Graysmith. It presents itself as a tell-all account and is laden with enough facts and theories to get even the most passive crime sleuth involved.
Director David Fincher returns with scenes of brutality and violence not seen since 1995’s Se7en. And, while they may not be as graphic, they certainly induce the same feeling of unease and tension experienced in that career defining film. As Zodiac’s story developed these feelings only grew stronger.
Unfortunately, being based on a case that is still unsolved to this day, Zodiac is extremely inconclusive viewing – both in a “Who dunnit?” sense and certainly when trying to define the purpose of the film. My biggest concern with Zodiac is the reason it was made.
Author Robert Graysmith – whose two books on the Zodiac killer provided the source material for the film – has an obsession that is portrayed palpably in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s an obsession that seems to extend to all the male characters involved with the case, as well as Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt.
The desire to catch the killer appears to be the genesis and purpose of Zodiac the film and while it may seem an admirable goal (Graysmith: “I still hold out hope that someone seeing the film or reading the books will break the two cryptograms and map that Zodiac says tell us his name and location.”) it proves to be the film’s downfall. Zodiac starts out punchy and engaging but as the years roll by for the characters on screen, and the hours for the audience, I found myself rapidly losing interest.
It becomes something akin to watching a slideshow of photographs from someone else’s holiday. While the person who went on the trip has personal memories and experiences to connect to the photos, you – as an outsider – soon grow weary of what you are being shown. I wouldn’t describe the experience as being lectured to (Fincher is a fantastic filmmaker) but the subject matter became rather dull.
Zodiac starts out promising but soon disintegrates into an extension of the still on-going investigation upon which it is based. It isn’t so much a movie as it is a glorified episode of Medical Detectives and, I hate to say it, Fincher, quite literally, has lost the plot with this film.
It is by no means a terrible watch. Fincher brings together some top acting talent (Downey Jr. is superb as drugged out and drunk reporter Paul Avery) and visually the film captures the mood and atmosphere of the time, but the whole experience is somewhat pointless.
Zodiac presents itself more as a case study for male gender studies than anything else. The obsession that grips the men in this film tears apart their lives. Their marriages fail, they withdraw from society and are consumed by a “quest” that they ultimately know will never be completed.
It has been more than three decades since the Zodiac first killed and, much like the media that helped assign him his mythical beast-like qualities at the time, this film tries to resuscitate the monster. Flogging a dead horse seems a more appropriate analogy.