Running Time: 157 minutes
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (strong violence)
In the late 1960s, early 1970s, a serial killer terrorised the San Francisco area. He sent coded letters to the press. He taunted the police and boasted of his exploits. He used the sign of the zodiac and was called the Zodiac killer. The investigation lasted many years with no one arrested. There were several suspects. One of the major suspects was finally identified in 1991 but died before charges could be laid.
This is the story of the investigation, of the media response, of one individual's obsession with the case and his uncovering of the evidence which led to the principal suspect. The investigator was a cartoonist, Robert Graysmith, working for the San Francisco Chronicle who eventually published his book on which the screenplay for Zodiac is based. He served as an advisor as did the chief detective on the case and a number of other police officers.
The film uses the technique of names, places and dates to give a kind of documentary tone to the film, inviting the audience to share the experiences of the killings, the steps taken by press and police, the frustration in not being able to charge a suspect, the frustration of time passing, the intense activity of Robert Graysmith and the final identification of a photo of the killer by one of the earliest victims who survived an attack by the Zodiac.
The film, lasting almost three hours, is continually absorbing, especially for those who are intrigued by puzzles and codes and trying to decipher them. For those who prefer straight action, Zodiac might seem too drawn out, emotional but also cerebral.
On the one hand the choice of David Fincher as director might seem strange. He has something of a reputation for stylish and stylised terror or horror with such films as Aliens 3, Seven, The Game, Fight Club and Panic Room. These are much more flourish and flair films than Zodiac. On the other hand, especially with Seven, Fincher has shown great interest in exploring the character and impact of a serial killer.
The film opens with the popular style and music of the late 1960s, fairly straightforward visuals, even with the (rather visually restrained though dramatically tense) sequences of the first murders. As the time frame moves on, the film resembles more the police investigation films of the seventies and eighties, even showing a clip and the posters for Dirty Harry which seems based in part on the Zodiac killer.
Initial contact is made with the crime reporter for the Chronicle, Paul Avery. Avery was something of a maverick and took particular interest in the case, following leads, upsetting detectives, writing articles but becoming afraid when he was threatened by the killer. He was moved off the case and began to drink, dying in 2000. He is played with his customary distinctiveness by a long-haired and goateed Robert Downey Jr.
However, in the background is a very earnest young cartoonist whom Avery befriends and who is caught up in puzzles and continues to follow the case, Robert Graysmith, played with an obsessive charm and naiveté by Jake Gyllenhaal. In the latter part of the film, his character and investigation dominate.
In the meantime, the detectives begin their work. The partners are played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards. When the film focuses on them, we follow the procedures in quite some detail. When the Anthony Edwards character resigns, then the film pays great attention to Mark Ruffalo, especially the frustrations in later years as little progress seems to be being made.
A number of quite creepy characters are seen or heard about, all of whom could be plausible candidates for the Zodiac. One of them in particular, played with a bizarre blend of arrogance, defiance, smile and sincerity is played very interestingly (and sinisterly) by John Carroll Lynch.
Over the years there have been many films in this genre. One thinks of The Boston Strangler or 10 Rillington Place from decades ago. In the 1970s there was Badlands. Television has portrayed some of the headline cases in the US like those of Ted Bundy, Mrs Harris and the Scarsdale Diet killing or the Melendez brothers who killed their parents. Zodiac is one of the most accomplished of these films.
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Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.