Directed by David Fincher (2007), 158 minutes
Beginning in 1969 and continuing into the 70s, San Francisco papers were filled with stories about a mysterious serial killer who called himself the Zodiac. Taunting the police to discover his identity - letters, ciphers, puzzles, and clues filled the newspapers until the story became a daily media event. Based on two books, Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked by Robert Graysmith, a former editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and on actual case files researched by the director, David Finchers Zodiac dramatizes the search for the identity of the killer, focusing more on the lives of the reporters and police officers who investigate the case than on the killings and their victims. The case has never been solved and no arrests have ever been made, in spite of there being 2500 suspects including one very plausible possibility discussed in the film.
Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Graysmith, an amateur detective who becomes interested in the case while working for the Chronicle. Though the killings stopped long ago, Graysmith continued to pursue leads long after the official investigation ceased. The world first heard about the Zodiac after two young people, Darlene Ferrin (Clara Hughes) and her friend Mike Mageau (Lee Norris) were shot in their parked car. Darlene was killed but Mike survived but was not asked to identify a suspect until many years later. Three weeks after the killing, a letter is received by the Chronicle that claims responsibility for the murder and an additional killing eight months prior.
Calling himself the Zodiac, the letter includes a coded message that the killer claims will reveal his identity if decoded. The letter also says that unless the paper continues to print his letters, the killings will continue. Though his name is never revealed, the code is discovered by amateur sleuths to point to a 1932 film, The Most Dangerous Game, in which a killer enjoys hunting down and killing human victims. The Chronicle assigns their top crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) to cover the case. When cab driver Paul Stine is killed in San Francisco, two homicide detectives Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) become involved and the focus of the film shifts to the police investigation.
Fincher, like an episode of Dragnet, gives us just the facts and lets us draw our own conclusions while describing conversations, procedures, interviews, and searches of public and private records in minute detail. As the Zodiac keeps upping the ante, he holds the media hostage, threatening to attack a school bus filled with children if the paper does not cooperate in feeding his desire for publicity. Soon the Zodiac demands that Melvin Belli (Brian Cox), a popular Bay Area attorney, talk to him on television and when the program takes place, there is some reference to the killers headaches but little comes of the conversation. Meanwhile Fincher details the growing strains that the investigation takes on the police and the reporters.
Avery is taken off the case. Armstrong requests a transfer so that he can spend more time with his family, and Graysmith, who begins to investigate the case on his own, becomes so obsessed with finding the killer that his marriage to his wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny) is put in jeopardy. Zodiac is an intelligent and involving film that holds our attention for the 158 minute running time but, perhaps because of the nature of the case, it is without key dramatic moments or even an overriding point of view, and is underplayed to the point that it doesnt fully convey the sense of fear and paranoia that gripped the Bay Area during that period. Yet Zodiac is as completely fascinating as All The Presidents Men in its roller coaster ride through tips, secret meetings, false leads, and hopes raised and then dashed. One only wishes that there could have been a Deep Throat to point investigators in the right direction.