Recently, the BBC released a list of the top 100 films of the 21st century (spoiler: it was Mulholland Drive), and having seen 8 out of the top 10 (A Separation, and Yi Yi I’m coming for you soon), I’m a little upset that Zodiac was only as high as number 12 because I honestly believe it is a perfect movie.
Zodiac is a movie about obsession, and it only makes sense that someone who does 99 takes for a scene (speaking of The Social Network‘s intro) would be the one to make the film. This film runs at a “brisk” 2 hours and 40ish minutes, I’m using the word brisk because while that running time is noticeable, but only when you get out of your seat once it’s over. You never feel that length, unless you’re watching the Director’s Cut that includes about a minute of a black screen, but I’ll get to that.
Based on the book Zodiac, written by Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the Zodiac murders. The film follows three characters who solely become obsessed with finding out the man behind the crimes. Paul Avery (a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr.) a crime journalist for the Chronicle, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) the homicide police officer assigned to the case, and Graysmith.
Previously in Seven, Fincher made a film about a fictional serial killer and kept most of the actual acts of violence out of frame, you just saw the end of it all. Compare that to the true and authentic murder scenes that are terrifying because of how simplistically real it is. There is no true motive to it all except a couple is in a car, at the wrong time. Or at a lake, at the wrong time. The scenes happen so matter-of-factly because the movie stays as factual as it possibly can. The survivors give different descriptions to the Zodiac each time, so they hire three different actors to portray him. The film doesn’t give any answers, it just gets you to the point where you can understand how easily it is to get obsessed with the case just like our three main leads.
Each of our leads has a different reason for being obsessed. Toschi wants justice for the crimes, Avery just wants the facts so he can print them, but it’s Graysmith that only needs to see him face to face and know that it’s him.
The film has it’s long run time so that it cover most of the important events of the case that can be proven. That is why the film didn’t show the possible first murder in ’66 or the first one that Zodiac admitted to which was in December of ’68. There was no real proof for it, but the opening scene that takes place on July 4th of ’69 can be. There is a moment near the middle of the film where there is a four-year time jump, and in the theatrical cut, the black screen lasts at most 5 seconds. Compare that to the Director’s Cut, we are given a minute of a black screen. There are popular songs and news reports that cover the black screen so nobody is left sitting in silence, but we might as well be. None of the songs or reports makes any mention of the Zodiac killer, in fact, the final report touches on the Son of Sam, it’s at this moment the film is showing us that everyone has moved on. But we are sitting there waiting for the rest of the story, and just as our leads who have become obsessed, we are noticing the loss of time, the loss of evidence, the chances of not getting the man behind all this disaster and tragedy.
Zodiac is about our three leads who become obsessed with a serial killer who broke into the mainstream by writing to the newspaper, and the police involved with the case. Zodiac covers the fall of the people who chased after him and shows us there are police officers who had full careers in the force and wasn’t able to find the man responsible. They still haven’t.
There is a real terror in that, and this film has a scene that I consider to be one of the most suspenseful scenes that didn’t come out of a horror film. When Graysmith goes to Bob Vaughn’s house and realizes that the poster with the writing that matches the most closely to the Zodiac actually belongs to him. It’s this fear in Gyllenhaal’s eyes as he avoids looking at Vaughn that leaves me frozen every time. Afterwards, when Vaughns mentions he will look for when they played The Most Dangerous Game in the basement, it’s the shot of Vaughn at the top of the stairs covering half of the frame as he is lit from below and this added muffle and echo for when he speaks, the words “I do” have never sounded more terrifying.
Fincher gives us a film of facts and situations. These moments that traumatized the country, and he makes them so matter-of-factly as if it lessens the blow of the intensity of it all. But it doesn’t, it adds to it.
I watched the movie again to write this article, and I started it after midnight on the 28th, and when I woke up, I watched it again. And a few hours later, I saw the final hour of it, again. It was a sheer coincidence that I celebrated Fincher’s birthday by watching what I think is his best film almost three times in one day.