David Fincher’s ZODIAC (2007)

Notable Festivals: Cannes

I’ve written before in my essays on Paul Thomas Anderson and The Coen Brothers about how 2007 was a watershed year in modern cinema. That specific year saw the release of three films that are widely considered to be the best films of the decade, the apex of efforts by specialty studio shingles like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent. Mid-level divisions like these flourished during the Aughts, with studios putting up considerable financial backing into artistic efforts by bold voices in an attempt to capture the lucrative windfall that came with awards season prestige. It was a great time to be a cinephile, but it was also ultimately an unsustainable bubble—a bubble that would violently pop the following year when these shingles shuttered their doors and studios turned their attention to blockbuster properties and mega-franchises (ugh) like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

As an eager student in film school, 2007 was a very formative year for me personally. It was the year that Anderson’s THERE WILL Be BLOOD and The Coens’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN were released, but those films are not the focus of this article. This particular essay concerns the third film in the trifecta, David Fincher’s masterful ZODIAC. When the film was released, I was already a Fincher acolyte and had been awaiting his return to the big screen five years after PANIC ROOM. As I took in my first screening of ZODIAC on that warm, Boston spring afternoon, I became acutely aware that I was watching a contender for the best film of the decade.

ZODIAC’s journey to the screen was a long, arduous one—much like the real-life investigation itself. The breakthrough came when writer James Vanderbilt based his take off of Robert Graysmith’s book of the same name. From Graysmith’s template, Vanderbilt fashioned a huge tome of a screenplay that was then sent to director David Fincher—helmer of the serial-killer-genre-defining SE7EN (1995)—basically out of respect. Fully expecting Fincher to pass, Vanderbilt and the project’s producers were quite surprised to learn of the director’s interest and connection to the material— but Fincher himself wasn’t surprised in the least. He remembered his childhood in the Bay Area, where Zodiac’s unfolding reign of terror was the subject of adults’ hushed whispers and his own captivated imagination. In an oblique way, ZODIAC is an autobiographical and sentimental film for Fincher—a paean to an older, more idyllic San Francisco whose innocence was shattered by the Zodiac murders and ultimately lost to the negative economic byproducts of rampant gentrification.

ZODIAC spans three decades of San Francisco history, beginning in 1969 and ending in 1991. The focusing prism of this portrait is the sense of paranoia and panic that enveloped the city during the reign of terror perpetrated by a mysterious serial killer known only as The Zodiac. Simply murdering people at random is a scary enough prospect to shake any city to its foundations, but Zodiac’s command of the media via chilling correspondence sent to newspaper editors and TV stations allowed him to disseminate his message and strike mortal fear into the heart of the entire state of California. At the San Francisco Chronicle, crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) takes up the Zodiac beat and finds an unlikely ally and partner in plucky cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose familiarity with pictorial language and messages aids in the endeavor to decode the Zodiac’s cryptic hieroglyphics. Meanwhile, Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is breathlessly canvassing the populace and questioning hundreds upon hundreds of suspects in an effort to crack the Zodiac case, only to find frustration and confusion at every turn. As the months turn to years, Zodiac’s body count continues to rise—until one day, it stops entirely. Time passes, nobody hears from the Zodiac for several years and the city moves on (including the increasingly alcoholic Avery). That is, with the exception of Graysmith and Toschi, whose nagging obsession continues to consume them whole. With each passing year, their prospects of solving the case drastically decreases, which only amplifies their urgency in bringing The Zodiac to justice before he slips away entirely.

What sets ZODIAC apart from other serial-killer thrillers of its ilk is its dogged attention to detail. Fincher and Vanderbilt built their story using only the facts—eyewitness testimony, authentic police documentation and forensics evidence. For instance, the film doesn’t depict any murder sequence in which there weren’t any survivors to provide accurate details about what went down. Another differentiating aspect about the film is the passage of time as a major theme, conveyed not only via on-screen “x months/years later” subtitles but also with inspired vignettes like a changing cityscape and music radio montages over a black screen. ZODIAC’s focus lies in the maddening contradiction of factual accounts that stymied real-life investigators and led to missed clues and dead-end leads. The true identity of The Zodiac was never solved, and the film goes to painstaking lengths to show us exactly why that was the outcome. ZODIAC attempts to deconstruct the larger-than-life myth of its namesake, but it also can’t help exaggerating him in our own cultural consciousness as the serial killer who got away—a modern boogeyman like Jason or Freddy that transcends the constraints of time and could pop up again at any time to resume his bloody campaign.

ZODIAC centers itself around a triptych of leads in Gyllenhaal, Downey and Ruffalo. The author of the film’s source text, Robert Graysmith, is depicted by Gyllenhaal as a goody-two-shoes boy scout and single father who throws himself into a downward spiral of obsession. His sweet-natured pluckiness is the antithesis of the hard-boiled, cynical detective archetype we’ve come to expect from these types of films. Downey, per usual, steals every scene he’s in as the flamboyant, acid-witted Paul Avery. Ruffalo more than holds his own as the detail-oriented police inspector in a bowtie, David Toschi (whose actions during the Zodiac case inspired the character of Dirty Harry). These three unconventional leads ooze period authenticity and help to immerse the audience into the story for the entirety of its marathon three hour running time.

By this point, Fincher had built up such an esteemed reputation for himself that he could probably cast any actor he desired. With ZODIAC’s supporting cast, Fincher has assembled a, unexpected and truly eclectic mix of fine character actors. John Carroll Lynch plays Arthur Lee Allen, the prime suspect in Toschi and Graysmith’s investigation. Lynch assumes an inherently creepy demeanor that, at the same time, is not overtly threatening. Lynch understands that he has a huge obligation in playing Allen responsibly, since the storyline effectively convicts him as the Zodiac killer posthumously (when it may very well be not true at all). When the Zodiac killer is seen on-screen, you’ll notice that it’s not Lynch playing the role. Fincher wisely uses a different actor for each on-screen Zodiac appearance as a way to further cloud the killer’s true identity and abstain from implicating Allen further than the storyline already does. Additionally, this echoes actual survivor testimonies, which were riddle with conflicting and mismatching appearance descriptions.

Indie queen Chloe Sevigny plays the nerdy, meek character of Melanie. As the years pass in the film, she becomes Graysmith’s second wife and grows increasingly alienated by his obsession. She possesses a quiet strength that’s never overbearing and never indulgent. Brian Cox plays San Francisco television personality Melvin Belli as something of a dandy and honored member of the literati. His depiction of a well-known local celebrity oozes confidence and gravitas. Elias Koteas plays Sergeant Mulanax, an embattled Vallejo police chief, while Dermot Mulroney plays Toschi’s own chief, Captain Marty Lee. PT Anderson company regular Phillip Baker Hall appears as Sherwood Morrill, an esteemed handwriting analyst whose expertise is thrown into question as he succumbs to an escalating alcohol problem. Comedian Adam Goldberg appears in a small role as Duffy Jennings, Avery’s sarcastic replacement at The Chronicle, and eagle-eyed Fincher fanatics will also spot the presence of Zach Grenier, who played Edward Norton’s boss in FIGHT CLUB (1999).

ZODIAC is a very important film within Fincher’s filmography in that it marks a drastic shift in his style, ushering in a second act of creative reinvigoration fueled by the rise of digital filmmaking cameras and tools that could match celluloid pixel for crystal. Fincher’s early adoption became a tastemaker’s vote of confidence in a fledgling technology and substantially bolstered the rate of adoption by other filmmakers. Having shot several of his previous commercials on digital with THE GAME’s cinematographer Harris Savides, Fincher was confident enough that digital cameras could meet the rigorous demands of his vision for ZODIAC and subsequently enlisted Savides’ experience as insurance towards that end.

Shooting on the Thomson Viper Filmstream camera in 1080p and presenting in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, Fincher is able to successfully replicate his signature aesthetic while substantially building on it with the new tools afforded to him by digital. Because of digital’s extraordinary low-light sensitivity, Fincher and Savides confidently underexpose their image with high contrast, shadowy lighting—many times using just the available practical lights, which resulted in moody, cavernous interior sequences and bright, idyllic exteriors. Fincher also is able to create something of a mundane, workaday look that stays within his established color space of yellow warm tones and blue/teal cold casts.

The procedural, methodical nature of the story is echoed in the observational, objective camera movement and editing. Fincher’s dolly and technocrane work is deliberate and precise, as is every cut by Angus Wall in his first solo editing gig for Fincher having co-edited several of his previous features. Wall’s work was certainly cut out for him, judging by Fincher’s well-documented insistence on doing as many takes as required in order to get the performance he wanted (it’s not uncommon in a Fincher film for the number of takes to reach into the 50’s or 60’s).

To my eyes, ZODIAC is quite simply one of the most realistic and authentic-looking period films I’ve ever seen, owing credit to Donald Graham Burt’s meticulous production design. Burt and Fincher aren’t after a stylized, exaggerated vintage look like PT Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), but rather a lived-in, well-worn, and low-key aesthetic. Absolutely nothing feels out of place or time. Fincher’s borderline-obsessive attention to historical detail extended as far as flying in trees via helicopter in one instance to make the Lake Berryessa locale look just as it did at the time. Practical solutions like this were augmented by clever, well-hidden CGI and digital matte paintings that never call attention to themselves. Funnily enough for a film so predicated upon its historical authenticity, Fincher also acknowledges a surprising amount of artistic license taken with the film’s story— compiling composites of characters and re-imagining real-life events in a bid for a streamlined, clean narrative.

In developing the film, Fincher initially didn’t want to use a traditional score, instead preferring to incorporate a rich tapestry of popular period songs, radio commercials, and other audio recordings. Toward that end, he used several different styles of music to reflect the changing decades, such as jazz, R&B and psychedelic folk rock like Donavan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, which takes on a pitch-black foreboding feel when it plays over the film’s brilliantly-staged opening murder sequence. Once the film was well into its editing, Fincher’s regular sound designer Ren Klyce suggested that the film could really use some score during key moments. Fincher agreed, and reached out to David Shire—the composer of Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), a film that served as ZODIAC’s tonal influence. Shire’s score is spare, utilizing mainly piano chords to create a brooding suite of cues that echoes the oblique danger and consuming obsession that the story deals in.

The story of ZODIAC is perfectly suited to Fincher’s particular thematic fascinations. Architecture plays a big role, with Fincher depicting San Francisco as a city in transition. He shows cranes on the skyline, holes in the ground waiting to be filled, and most famously, an impressionistic timelapse of the TransAmerica tower’s construction. This approach extends to his interiors, specifically the Chronicle offices, which slowly transform over the years from a beige bullpen of clacking typewriters and cathedral ceilings to a brighter workspace with low-slung tile ceilings and fluorescent light fixtures (as seen in the well-composed low angle shots that pepper the film). Nihilism— another key recurring theme throughout Fincher’s work— pervades the storyline and the actions of its characters. Because they’re unable to solve the mystery and tie things up with a neat Hollywood ending, they either fall into an existential crisis about all their wasted efforts, or they simply lose interest and move on. Fincher’s exploration of film’s inherent artifice is present here in very meta stylings: film canisters and their contents become promising leads and clues, and the characters get to watch movies about themselves on the screen (Fincher makes a big show of Toschi attending the Dirty Harry premiere). ZODIAC’s unique tone and subtext is perfectly indicative of Fincher’s sensibilities as an artist, and frankly, it’s impossible to imagine this story as made by someone else.

ZODIAC bowed at the Cannes Film Festival to great views, its praise echoed by a cabal of prominent critics stateside. They hailed it as a masterpiece and Fincher’s first truly mature work as a filmmaker—the implication being that the maverick director was ready to join the Oscar pantheon of Great Filmmakers. The critics’ high praise hasn’t eroded since either; it consistently ranks as one of the best films of the decade, if certainly not the most underrated. I wish the same could be said of the box office take of its original theatrical run, which was so poor that it only made back its budget when worldwide grosses were accounted for. Thankfully, the release of Fincher’s director’s cut on home video managed to bring the film a great deal of respect and attention. As a reflection of Fincher’s strict adherence to facts and eyewitness testimony in making the case for Arthur Lee Allen as the Zodiac, the long-dormant case was actually re-opened by Bay Area authorities for further investigation. When the pieces are put all together, the evidence clearly points to ZODIAC as Fincher’s grandest achievement yet.

ZODIAC is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.


Produced by: Caen Chaffin, Brad Fischer, Arnold Messer, Mike Medavoy, James Vanderbilt
Written by: James Vanderbilt
Director of Photography: Harris Savides
Production Designer: Donald Graham Burt
Editor: Angus Wall
Sound Design: Ren Klyce
Music by: David Shire