"Just because you can't prove it doesn't mean it isn't true."
David Fincher lets method rule the madness. In films as diverse as Alien 3, Se7en, Fight Club, Gone Girl, his proficient technical storytelling attempts to control philosophical extremes. When the extremes run away with the mood, such as in the audience's addicted awe at the wicked intellect of his villains, the films fail to be as tense, or especially as cautionary, as they intend. In comparison, Zodiac, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this week, matches the method to its creator’s concept of a world struggling for identity in changing times. The viewer becomes an observer of the unsolved events and the human errors that caused them to be so, a witness to a world of witnesses. There’s no narration to give the film the illusion of nobility; Zodiac is a dramatic conversion of real life without the feeling of randomness. It's filmed naturalistically but conceived with rigid precision. Its most crucial aspects are not those Fincher includes but those he was willing to leave out. Few films (none by Fincher) have ever earned “Based on True Events” quite so much.
The whole film has a somber tint of beige and cold teal, framed in hard blacks. The light sources are often singular – desk lamps, car headlights, interrogation rooms, flashlights, streetlamps. Zodiac exposes subjects selectively, keeping suspicions high, spinning on a brutal edge, though the film is not sensational. The characters in Zodiac interact without the fluid certainty of movie conventions (this is if they choose to interact at all). The writer James Vanderbilt seems to have made it the film’s goal to enhance detachment, or perhaps harness his natural proclivity for it. The fact that this is the writer of such blockbuster slush as The Amazing Spider-Man and Independence Day: Resurgence provides more proof of the compatibility between Zodiac and its new chroniclers (as well as the strength of its source material, the books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked by Robert Graysmith). These "characters" are not drawn to each other by invisible threads of movie magic, forced to make the best of inevitable interactions. They're people, keeping to their cliques, staying quiet even when action might have saved the day. Some of them move in and out of the film anonymously; even memorable performances might feature no great deeds, good or bad. They just hang around long enough for the film to expose them, and let them leave.
The viewer waits on edge for Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) to make a move. Fincher recruits him for that Mensa twinkle that seems to set everything at ease – you just know the guy will solve the plot eventually. But Avery drops out of the film, coldly, in pointless self-pity. This was the year before Downey Jr. became expensive by playing Iron Man, but he proves in Zodiac with his special cocktail of conceited loathing that he became cheaper too, in the same shiny swing. Here he’s a complicated do-nothing with the looks to pull it off better than most people can pull off being useful, similar to the brainy lay-about he played in Good Night, and Good Luck but even less noble (this time, he really is the guy that Tony Stark pretends to be to catch people off-guard). It's no accident that Downey Jr.'s attitude carried the MCU's success for over a decade. The man has mastered the art of shrugging.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the cartoonist/writer, Graysmith (he’s not only the second point of the triforce of MCU cameos but the insertion of the books' real author). He’s in the role that should be pulling the grenade pin on the film’s revelations, but Zodiac lets him take years to mull it over. He’s just a guy with a puzzle penchant and a problem with speaking up, Clark Kent walking everywhere on foot. Graysmith has an intense investment in the story but little agency (he's a quiet person in a clanging world). He works on the scale of a real person’s life, which Fincher resists expanding into fantasies of dramatic catharsis. This shows character growth in the still-young director, who had not yet resisted the allure of the powerhouse emotional sequences that made his previous films more epic yet more trivial. His maturity turns Zodiac into a case file, a film in bullet points, one where the script compiles pertinent things but never stops for embellishment. It isn’t a serial killer film – it’s serial info, strung out, reporters and cops lost in the sheer weight of a historical period unsure of its transition into the future. If there were no surviving witnesses, Fincher chose not to fabricate the event. The audience, like the head-scratchers in the film, have to learn about it after the fact.
The character that completes the manly trio, arguably the biggest gun of the bunch, is Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the investigator whose reputation inspired Dirty Harry and Bullit and even a certain place to get power converters on Tatooine. But as the impression of the real man, there’s not a shootout in sight, just a tough guy whose toughness can’t be turned off. Like Dirty Harry, the Toschi portrayed here is twice as tough on everyone as he should be, but unlike his imitations, that’s still only half as tough as he is on himself. This takes the badass out of him, like starch from a shirt, and leaves a more interesting man than his reputation implies. Ruffalo assured Fincher that he wasn’t interested in the part, not realizing that by doing so he had become even more perfect for it. When the real Toschi, whose steel-trap mind contributed numerous details for the “where” and “when” and “in what color shirt” of the film, saw Zodiac, he said Ruffalo did “a good job.”
Toschi might be Fincher’s secret weapon, if authenticity is the one power to rule the others in their mutual truth obsession. But Zodiac goes beyond the authentic impression of a real event, such as those filmed on celluloid in the 70s. The film instead has the uneasy certainty of a recreation, down to the digital mattes that stretch down the grimy streets of another era and the recreation of that parking lot murder scene, which has long since been built over. But this doesn’t make the film feel fake. The work achieving the re-enactment is so believable that it makes the world feel prearranged, guided by its case file. Fincher purposefully uses digital techniques to capture analog-style filmmaking, rather than use that style outright, a decision challenged by his cinematographer, Harris Savides, who suspected that the "plastic" digital images would remove the audience from the period. However, Fincher persisted to take the film to what Savides described as the "hyper-real," to give the film the quality of the nightly news rather than a "real" image.
This was one of Fincher's most brilliant moves – it gives the film the same expression of anxiety, the stress of the transition, of its period in time. As murder cases like the Zodiac killer often coincide and even validate cultural unrest, the period in which the film takes place was a similar transition in cinema from the Old Hollywood to the New. Zodiac is not a sentimental expression designed to evoke nostalgia but one that is strung out by an artistic identity struggle that reflects discontent in its time (compare to The Old Man & the Gun, which was actually filmed on 35mm). What Graysmith was always close to realizing, as a man of puzzles, was that the Zodiac killer was not just a mystery but a cipher decoding the greater mystery of the world that made him. Armed with Fincher's mix of mediums, the audience can complete that puzzle for him. Even the music, a mix of counter-culture and period favorites, constantly places the murders in the foreground of deeper issues of social dissent. The visuals in being glossy complete the sense of unease by delivering a less immersive but more chilling image exactly as Fincher intended, like the evening news (2014's Nightcrawler, also starring Gyllenhaal, learned how to do this from Zodiac).
Zodiac's play with mediums and its placement in history gives the viewer far more information than its participants. While Graysmith is obsessed with knowing for sure the identity of the killer (and of the society around him), the viewer knows that certain knowledge is impossible since the case is still unsolved. This gives the film the fatalism that Fincher strives for even in the dramatic firecracker plot of something like Gone Girl but with the real-world material to back it up. In Zodiac, the viewer knows that nothing can be resolved, which is why a scene like the one where Graysmith investigates that basement is one of the most validating in the whole thriller genre. Despite knowing that the Zodiac killer will not be revealed and Graysmith will survive to write books about it, the audience feels this scene more intensely than if the "movie hero" was in danger. Instead of being afraid for his life, the audience is afraid of the scene's ambiguity, preserved in a moment of uncertain fear when Graysmith realized that if he just solved the Zodiac case, his wit will have killed him. Zodiac backs off on the score to let the audience poach in that realization. This film lets reality do the talking.
Around this ambiguous testament to human indecision, the film’s violent subject, the Zodiac killer, the part that would have been the obsession of a less obsessed filmmaker than Fincher, kills at least five people and disappears (“probably more,” any decently investing retelling would assure its wide-eyed reader). Fincher casts multiple actors in the role of the shadowy figure in each of the murder scenes, to violate certainty some more. The daylight killing by the lake in the Napa Valley begins with a shot of unnerving power as a woman who must be considered already dead looks out into the frame, not directly, with the audience unaware of exactly where the Zodiac killer is. When he appears, he's completely black against the sky, as contrasted from his present surroundings as a traveler from another time. Her beehive hairdo and the man's pastel shirt are a blatantly innocent, period-specific visual, hauntingly preserved; the viewer gets the unmistakable impression of seeing a ghost. They're the time period, bargaining and pleading to remain the same; the killer not only stabs through their pastel clothes, ending the illusion, but was always going to, no matter what they said.
Suspicion is not proof in real life, but it usually is in the movies. Zodiac adapts suspicion as it really is, without the contrivances. The characters may think the killer is someone, but the accusation doesn't prove itself as it would in a more limited screenplay. It isn’t a horror film, but it contains the even more unsettling fear of lacking resolution. The open bracket of Zodiac is more creepily satisfying as a clearly executed feat of irony than most films can manage with a slam-bang final act. Fincher turned an unnervingly unfinished subject into a film so finished that the lack of resolution for the characters should never be mistaken for a flaw in the method. It ends, right where it believes in ending, at the break of the last important line of testimony, with no closing arguments.
The film’s secret compulsion in the absence of obvious thrills is the way its exposition is edited together, exposition that Fincher loves to the point of making the outcast, often-criticized device into his whole art. Exposition in films often allows cheap scenes to weasel their way out of being interesting while maintaining an air of importance. But Fincher doesn’t trap two characters in a diner for lack of alternatives. He does it because Zodiac is not a story about things that happen – it’s about what we think we know about things we think happened. In a filmography filled with exposition in diverse forms, from paternal narration to jagged inner monologues, the appropriateness of Zodiac’s material for scene after scene of exposition in its literal reality is where Fincher and the film become the perfect couple.
Consider the scene where Graysmith and Toschi hash out the case in that diner. The view of them in profile is below them, with the ceiling and light fixtures clearly visible throughout Graysmith's argument. He's both convincing and enclosed by his surroundings, visually turning his sureness into a more ominous feeling of fatal obsession. At their eye level, they inform each other (and us) what they know in the shot-reverse-shot conversation structure that movies use when they don’t know how to make it interesting. But Fincher revitalizes the tactic, making the shot and the reverse different depending on the micro-tone of the moment, not necessarily focusing on the person who’s talking when they’re talking. The camera is fixed and level, as it often is in his films, with seemingly computer-operated precision. As they learn more, the camera gets closer to eye level; the audience is drawn in, also learning. Crucially, Toschi is not unconvinced that Graysmith's story is true, just that it's provable ("I'm not asking you as a cop." "But I am a cop. I can't prove this."). When he gets up to leave, the uncertainty of the high ceiling comes back, leaving the scene in worse than doubt – Fincher leaves it in nagging suspicion. In Zodiac, precision becomes a feeling of predestiny. The viewer feels so inside the world that the action becomes as chilling as history.
Fincher doesn’t have to be fancy to glorify himself. He and Savides keep the camera as still and suspicious as his idea of the real world (his lack of indulgence is his favorite indulgence). In some of his films, this becomes that overstimulated self-acceptance that turns a cautionary tale into its own caution. In comparison, Zodiac is as still as the philosophy that made it, as de-romanticized as it needed to be to fade into the background of its weary world yet meticulously crafted enough to reflect a historical transition in the framework of a thriller. The result is fatalism on a level reached by few films since fantasy comes with its own bargaining power – it can't be that fatal if the audience thinks it's fake. The reality of Zodiac exemplifies the sense that terrible things can happen even as the film's glossy perfection changes the realization into the idea that they have happened already. Replaying them turns accounts into prophecies.
Fincher can come off as impersonal, ominous. He relieves his movies of huge parts of what movies are accepted as being, with heroes and villains subject to the same manic uselessness, normal rhythms of climax and catharsis disrupted by harder truths. He refuses the audience handheld views on purpose (there's only a single handheld shot in Zodiac), replacing them with replications that become nearly omniscient, a high-detail fantasy of reality. No one feels in on the action of this place in Zodiac, even (especially) when they hope they are. In Fincher’s universe, we’re ultimately all observers. Exposition is the symphony of life, the “where” and the “when.” In an interview, he said of his filmmaking technique, “They know you can do anything. The question is: what don’t you do?” Withholding is his great art, when he can stick to it, and if Zodiac is his best film, it should also be recognized as the film where he doesn’t do something most often. Its material is compiled, never assessed (we’re the assessed ones).
The story of the Zodiac killer was a decades-long media odyssey of mystery, speculation, and brow-rubbing so all-consuming that Luke Skywalker says the name of its lead investigator because of his creator's mutual obsession. It boils down in Fincher’s aesthetic to a fixed shot of two men looking at each other, simmering. It is in one moment the uncanny power that Fincher’s style can handle at its best, reflecting through convincing fakery the troubling uncertainty of a whole period in time, for which this murderer was an unstoppable force of change in a march towards a scary future. Any director, like a good beat cop who’s served his time to the point of getting tired towards the world, could take a moment like that and retire on it. He might do it too, before he finds himself in a world where the Zodiac killer fits right in.
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Paramount Picture/Warner Bros. Pictures