Director David Fincher is known for making two of the finest serial killer films in Hollywood – Se7en and Zodiac. And there are two categories of Fincher fans: one that thinks Se7en is better than Zodiac and the other that thinks exactly the opposite. I belong to the latter camp. I think Zodiac is Fincher’s most accomplished film till date. My admiration for this film grows with each passing every year. This is the kind of compelling cinema that gives me the maximum kicks. I’m sure this must have been the most complicated film that Fincher has had to tackle so far. His attention to details here is more prominent and awe-inspiring than all his other films.
The film tells the story of the infamous “Zodiac” killer who carried out several murders in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 60s and early 70s. This is one of those high-profile cases that was never solved, which is a bit disturbing. This is a killer who used the media to his advantage. He used to send letters filled with ciphers and pieces of the victims’ blood-stained clothing to the San Francisco Chronicle and this is how the police and the public were notified of the murders he had committed. The film is based on some of the books written by a political cartoonist named Robert Graysmith (played here by Jake Gyllenhaal), who used to work for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was he who took a deep interest in the case as he showed a talent for decoding the letters sent by the killer. He became obsessed with the case and relentlessly pursued it for around 13 years.
The film is not as disturbing or dark as Se7en but it is still quite chilling. It is not so much a film about a serial killer as the people who are obsessed with capturing him. Graysmith had collaborated with Dave Toschi (played by Mark Ruffalo), who was the chief investigator on this case and Paul Avery (played by Robert Downey Jr.), a reporter working at the San Francisco Chronicle. This obsession starts to create a significant impact on the characters’ lives and it becomes obvious to us that Graysmith is the most obsessed of the three. The increasing pressure of the case starts to weigh on Toschi and he slowly becomes disillusioned. Avery on the other hand becomes increasingly paranoid after receiving a threatening letter and becomes dependent on drugs and alcohol. Graysmith is forced to conduct the investigation on his own and it starts to take a toll on his personal life too.
The stunning historical accuracy of the film has been noted by many critics and because of this, it has been aptly compared to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, another favorite of mine. It’s not a coincidence as Fincher himself has cited the film’s influence in several interviews. Fincher went to great lengths to re-create the real-life locations, especially the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle. Also, noteworthy is his seamless use of visual effects to design some of the shots and locations. What Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides managed to display here is pure magic. Some sequences looked so realistic that you can never quite tell for sure if they were created with the help of CGI. It can be easily mistaken for self-indulgence but taking into consideration Fincher’s distinctive style, you know that those shots are there for a reason.
Apparently, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt spent more than 18 months researching the subject matter. With his meticulous and deft direction, Fincher has managed to craft one of the best crime thrillers of all time. The pacing is surprisingly perfect for a film of such a lengthy run time (157 minutes). I never got bored even for a second. All the principal actors along with the supporting cast has done a remarkable job and it’s because of their engaging performances coupled with Fincher’s direction that the film succeeds in maintaining our sustained interest. I would strongly recommend watching the Director’s Cut.