ZODIAC (David Fincher, 2007)
Based on the unsolved case, the decades-spanning ZODIAC documents the intensive search for a killer who haunted Bay Area citizens and taunted authorities with promises of unpreventable future murders. In letters to three San Francisco newspapers, the man calling himself the Zodiac claims responsibility for lover's lane killings at Christmastime 1968 and on July 4, 1969. To add validity to his claims the correspondence includes details not made available to the public. The cryptograms that come with the letters supposedly reveal his true identity.
Police officers and newspapermen following the case can't help but become obsessed. Inspectors David Toschii (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are dogged in following leads, but they encounter a maze of dead ends. Police at the various jurisdictions involved with the Zodiac's alleged victims haven't shared their information and can be uncooperative in doing so.
San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) pores over the cryptograms and collects any scrap of knowledge he can find, including the discarded papers of reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). The case drags on for years, yet Robert plunges even deeper into it assured that he can crack the investigation.
Director David Fincher lets ZODIAC unspool at a leisurely pace that permits it to examine evidence and details over a long period of time. The film leaves no stone unturned, a defining trait both admirable for how it draws a portrait of obsession and questionable for entertainment purposes. ZODIAC'S thoroughness is unparalleled among police procedurals, but all the shoe leather can become tedious. Granted, that's the point. The exhaustive process becomes all-consuming, and Fincher encapsulates that frustrating pursuit well. Perhaps he does it too well because the bogged down section devoted to the investigators gets tiresome.
Unlike THE NUMBER 23, a film undone by the silly and nonsensical, ZODIAC dives headlong into obsession and rationalizes it. As audience members trained to spot red herrings and foreshadowing in movie mysteries, we begin to believe we're finding clues and connections to bring about a satisfying resolution when one cannot be found. Like it does for Graysmith, the answer seems within reach even though going in one knows that the case was never solved. Still, that doesn't squelch thoughts that history can be changed within the confines of the film.
As obsession will lead people to do strange things, so will fear. It's also a driving force in ZODIAC and one that Fincher uses to connect these unsolved murders to today. The director doesn't equate the Zodiac and Middle Eastern terrorists, but it seems apparent that he's interested in linking how living in fear of them fulfills their goals too. While the threats both present are real or legitimately accepted as such, the likelihood of them directly impacting any individual's life is exponentially greater via their function as boogeymen. Yet parents pull kids off buses because the Zodiac threatens to shoot children unboarding from them. Airline passengers aren't permitted to bring liquids or toothpaste onto planes for fear of terrorist plots. In the minds of the public, both are granted extraordinary powers out of fear. (If you're seeking direct evidence of Fincher comparing the times, look no further than how he depicts the bureaucratic roadblocks in information sharing about the Zodiac, a section that echoes pre-9/11 intelligence gathering.)
An elegant sequence in ZODIAC shows the passage of time in the case while recreating the construction of one of the Bay's signature buildings. Similarly, the story is built beam by beam, but Fincher tweaks the final design of what we expect in the architecture of a serial killer movie. Doors don't lead where they normally do, and some rooms can never be unlocked. For that reason ZODIAC can be a vexing film, but its style and ideas compensate for the thwarting of conventions.