David Fincher, the director of Zodiac, is rumored to be a cold SOB, but that’s not a bad thing if you’re a thriller specialist. A penchant for treating audiences like lab rats and actors like specimens in jars can even be an asset: Fincher’s Se7en, with its artfully rendered tableaux morts, is a genre cornerstone, a Louvre for necrophiliacs. Zodiac—which centers on the hunt for a sociopath who, beginning in the late sixties, killed at random while taunting San Francisco Bay Area police and newspaper editors with hammy threats and bizarre cryptograms—isn’t the same kind of tour de force. But in its roundabout, elliptical way, it gets at something transcendentally icky about the fetish for serial killers (and serial-killer hunters) that has grown only more common in this era of true-crime blogs and celebrity forensic scientists. It’s a movie about the allure of grotesque puzzles—and about living with the bogeyman when the bogeyman, in all likelihood, no longer lives.
It should be said that the movie itself feels like an unfinished puzzle. I don’t know if vital connecting material was lopped out in the editing room (the thing still runs two and a half hours), or if the screenwriter, James Vanderbilt, couldn’t find the right frame for all the minutiae in the rambling books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, by the former editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played onscreen by Jake Gyllenhaal). But what begins like your basic police procedural becomes more and more choppy and diffuse. To a point, that’s intentional: Zodiac was never caught, and Fincher aims to creep you out with the lack of closure, with the absence of a Dirty Harry–style climax and windup (Dirty Harry being one of the myriad serial-killer thrillers that drew its inspiration—if that’s what you want to call it—from the Zodiac case). But there are lapses in storytelling that don’t seem like bold artistic choices. It’s a little confusing who lives and dies after one Zodiac attack, and the escape of a near victim happens entirely off-camera. Fincher, it turns out, is not a police-procedural-type guy. He’s not a people-type guy. He’s a mood ghoul.
A great opening can carry you a long way, though, and Zodiac has a stunner: an attack at night on a couple in a parked car that’s among the most brilliantly cruel sequences I’ve ever seen. Fincher has already chilled you to the bone with the combination of darkness, distant fireworks (it’s July 4), and Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (“singing songs of luuuhhh-huhhh-huuuuv”). The druggy aura isn’t overdone, but the dark side of the counterculture is in the music and Fincher’s pacing, in the way a second car pulls up in back and sits—and sits. The face of the figure that emerges—out of a sudden bright light—is always on the brink of visibility, but never … quite … And the shots, when they come, blast right through your head. The second murder set piece is in some ways the greater—and more perverse—achievement: in daylight, in the open (in front of an endless vista), with only the sound of a woodpecker. Well, there’s one other sound: the hooded Zodiac addressing the bound, prone couple in almost reassuring tones—the tones of a reluctant robber, not a killer. He really was a sick fuck.
The rest of the movie is purposely flat—and, to be honest, I can’t remember many scenes distinctly. They go by fast (sometimes too fast). The cinematographer, Harris Savides, uses a newfangled hi-def video camera, and the lighting doesn’t seem fussed-over. The excellent actors—among them Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, and Dermot Mulroney—talk quickly and play it close to the vest in the best police-procedural style. As an investigative reporter who drifts into alcoholism and addiction, Robert Downey Jr. blurts his lines and brightens every moment with his choirboy-gone-to-seed ingenuousness. Even when he plays a cynic, there’s something hopeful about him. The rumpled Mark Ruffalo plays a San Francisco detective who returns every year to the site of a cabdriver’s murder, and the actor carries a trace of that same boyish hurt. Come to think of it, with the addition of Gyllenhaal, this is a baby-faced central trio: Unlike the obsessed cops and reporters in most noir pictures, they’re in a different dimension than the sadist they pursue. John Carroll Lynch is Arthur Leigh Allen, who might or might not have been the Zodiac but who is beyond any doubt a scary freak with an inner life the actor can only hint at—broadly. Fincher keeps him on the periphery, which is dramatically unsatisfying but ups the eeriness quotient exponentially.
As the nominal protagonist, Gyllenhaal has a lot of pep, but at times seems dazed, even shell-shocked; I missed seeing what the real Graysmith claims in interviews, that his dogged independent sleuthing came from the same place as his editorial cartoons—as moral outrage at injustice. But then, I don’t think Fincher can relate much to moral outrage. What occupies him is how to send you home antsy, unsure of what you’ve seen but sure it was worse than you think. He gives you the existential willies.