Zodiac is dark, gritty and doesn’t insult our intelligence. Director David Fincher isn’t afraid to guide us on a step-by-step basis of how the police gathered their information or how journalists tracked down leads to bring the Bay Area’s most notable serial killer to justice. The film also depicts the passage of time brilliantly, how even though the Zodiac was only confirmed to have killed less than a dozen people, the fear of him lurking in the shadows plagued San Francisco for nearly a decade. It’s slowly methodical but plays like a symphony, with every character and interconnecting story building into something far more beautiful and deadly.
It’s funny to imagine how the Zodiac killer case would play out in today’s outrage-driven internet landscape, composed of amateur online sleuths who think of themselves as vigilantes when they’re really just unemployed 40-somethings with a lot of time on their hands. A new Zodiac killing would be revealed, the internet would go apeshit trying to pick apart every minute detail from the crime scene and piece together a probable suspect list, whom would all be automatically deemed guilty in the court of public opinion. The cops would ask the internet detectives to stop getting involved and the entire case would become a massive cluster fuck. Or maybe the advanced technology in today’s age would make it easier to capture the true Zodiac killer, who knows.
But that is not the way things happened. In our reality, the Zodiac killer was a feared murderer who preyed the San Francisco Bay Area throughout the 1970s. Dutiful police officers and journalists tried to crack the killer’s code to discover his identity and stop his killing streak, but to no true avail. David Fincher’s Zodiac isn’t so much a who’s-who, diving into who it thinks is the real killer (although it does make a strong case for Arthur Leigh Allen,) but is more an examination of a city consistently on the brink of self-destruction and the journalists and police officers who toil away at the expense of their own health and relationships to bring the killer to justice.
The best of these heroes is Jake Gylenhaal’s character Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who has a penchant for puzzle-solving and becomes increasingly obsessed with the Zodiac case. He doesn’t have a burning desire to see the Zodiac killer brought to justice, or to bring closure to the family’s of those who lost loved ones to the killer. To Robert, the Zodiac killer is just the ultimate puzzle, a series of events and situations, all seemingly unrelated and inconsequential, that still have some common thread or killer to unite them all together, he just needs to discover it.
This examination of obsession is Fincher’s biggest achievement in this movie, how humans have an innate desire to fix a problem and find a true solution, no matter how achingly painful that solution may be. Dripping water from a leaky faucet isn’t really what annoys us as much as figuring out why that faucet even got leaky in the first place. Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo’s character have the self-discipline to know when too much Zodiac case is enough. But for Gylenhaal, he just keeps painfully trying to fix the faucet, even though he never really wanted a glass of water in the first place.