There’s a moment in Zodiac when Jake Gyllenhaal, as newspaper editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith, comes face to face with the man he believes is the notorious serial killer who terrorized northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a man he has been hunting obsessively for years. Graysmith can do nothing but stare in horror at the unfathomable evil before him… and Gyllenhaal makes it one of the most quietly spellbinding moments I’ve seen on film in ages.
This comes near the end of the film, after Zodiac has long been building to a moment like this: not in these exact particulars, but to a confrontation with evil that isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen on film before. For this is not a movie about a serial killer as we’ve come to think of them — this is not a bloody gorefest that pretends to be some sort of visceral ritual purification for we decent folk trying to get our heads around something impossible to truly understand, but is actually nothing more than a pornographic expose of a madman’s modus operandi. It doesn’t even offer the intellectual catharsis of attempting to profile and define and categorize the precise psychosis that drives a serial killer. It is not about a killer, really, but about how we decent folk relate to the knowledge of his existence — it is, perhaps, an attempt to profile and define and categorize the precise psychosis that drives our grim fascination with serial killers.
Maybe this is the only way that this story could have been told, because the Zodiac killings remain officially unsolved — there’s no one for us to psychoanalyze. And to call this case “notorious” is to understate the impact it had on the city of San Francisco, which had citizens in such a panic that the city set curfews to keep people off the streets and out of harm’s way. Director David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt (The Rundown, Darkness Falls) glide by the widespread terror the Zodiac inspired — we learn about the curfew only in a brief newsy voiceover, and the city’s on-edginess through scared talk-radio call-in voices; meanwhile, urban life continues: the skyline’s famous Transamerica Pyramid shoots up in time-lapse to indicate a passage of years. The profiling and defining and categorizing instead gets very personal, as the film focuses on three men whose inability to let the mystery go unsolved leads them down their own dark spirals of obsession.
There’s Mark Ruffalo’s (Just Like Heaven, Collateral) SFPD cop, Inspector Dave Toschi, rumpled and frowsy but all concentrated vehemence — contrast him with his partner, Anthony Edwards’s (The Forgotten, Thunderbirds) dapper Bill Armstrong, who’s not quite so ready to endure the haunting they’re in for when the Zodiac arrives in the Bay Area, announcing his crimes with a cryptic letter to the San Francisco Chronicle after a couple of gruesome slayings in surrounding small towns. There’s Robert Downey Jr.’s (A Scanner Darkly, Good Night, and Good Luck.) Paul Avery, Chronicle columnist whose disdainful eye will get him into deep symbiosis with the killer, whose communications to the Chronicle continue for years. And there’s Gyllenhaal’s (Jarhead, Brokeback Mountain) Graysmith, who peers over the shoulders, metaphorically and literally, of his superiors and elders at the paper to eavesdrop on the Zodiac story, his love of puzzles drawing him to the killer’s strange ciphers. (The film is adapted from a book by the real-life counterpart of Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist.)
Years clip by in moments in Zodiac — Fincher rivets us through what could have been an interminable two-hour-and-forty-minute runtime, by daringly jumping through a crime spree that spanned decades with brisk panache, boiling it down into slices of suspense, drama, and fear, with a bit of media criticism thrown in sideways for spice. What makes it all genius is Fincher’s sudden new grounding in cold, hard reality — this is no flight of horror fantasy, like his Seven or even Fight Club: this is almost Scorsesian, it’s so breathtakingly elemental, its no-nonsense attitude propping up the tiny bit of batshit craziness all three of these good men languish in. These are three electric actors, and watching them square off in a wild do-si-do — Gyllenhaal and Downey butt heads, then Downey and Ruffalo, then Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal — is supremely satisfying. But what makes this instantly one of the great crime movies of all time is that Fincher draws us in to share their fixation in a way that no horror porn — not even the brilliant Seven — has ever been capable of achieving. We are the true objects of horror here.