David Fincher's Zodiac is a tour de force procedural told through the haze of 1970s discontent and bureaucratic inertia serving as a subterfuge for paranoia. A film bleeding with film history from Fritz Lang's M to the paranoid thrillers of Alan Pakula, Zodiac simmers in true crime obsession and harrowing encounters with the pursuit of the truth.
Zodiac is about the murders afflicting the Bay Area through the 1970s. Fincher is uninterested in criminal pathologies, and way more into how modern cities deal with a crisis. We follow detectives with the San Francisco Police department, principally Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and journalists for the San Francisco Chronicle, cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyellenhaal and crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr).
The narrative drive of Zodiac is among the best of 21st Century cinema. Fincher drew upon All the President's Men as a primary influence: The brightly lit newspaper offices are contrasted with the darkness of the street where the killer lurks, striking at random. David Shire who composed the score for many '70s movies including ATPM was brought in for Zodiac. While many previous novels and films have dealt with killers terrorizing a city, Zodiac explores how mass media adds to the sense of paranoia. Television news feeds off the tension and makes it worse, the killer knows how to manipulate the media to stoke mass panic.
Fincher relents from going too far into exploitative territory. Three of the killings are recreated, the scenes focus on the randomness of the killings, which is frightening enough, but not on the gory details. Neither does the film obsess over the psychology of the killer, James Vanderbilt's script is more of a puzzle. Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith as an amateur sleuth, spending most of the film trying to decode the clues in the countless letters the killer sent, in what would form the basis of his 1986 book Zodiac.
Meanwhile, the detectives on the case continually run into jurisdiction issues, which led to clumsy evidence collecting and a poor pooling of resources. Ruffalo as Inspector Toschi persists with the case despite all the setbacks - to his own detriment. When the authorities finally finger a likely suspect played by John Carroll Lynch in an icy performance, they fail to attain enough evidence. RDJ as Avery was targeted with letters by the killers and his own idealism is slowly shattered as his own investigation hits brick walls.
Graysmith becomes the main protagonist of the story, Gyllenhaal plays him with the right amount of virtue and intelligence. In perhaps the creepiest scene he follows a lead and ends up in a scary basement with a shady man offering information. Chloe Sevigny plays Robert's long-suffering wife in a thankless role who eventually leaves him over his obsession with the case.
In interviews Fincher spoke about growing up in the Bay Area being terrified of the Zodiac killer as a kid, almost in the way one speaks of fictional characters like Michael Myers or Freddy Kreuger, so there's a personal touch running through the film. The film was smart enough to create a vivid sense of '70s verisimilitude without trying to make grand statements about the era which has all been said before. It's all there on the screen.
In the end I find Zodiac to be an oddly optimistic film in its thesis that the truth is attainable, thus eschewing the sense of ineffectual doom of so many paranoid thrillers.