True crime – one of the most terrifying genres of filmmaking. Maybe not because of the content, but because of the fact that we sit there, tensely remembering how these events actually happened. Most of the time, the films are wrapped up in a neat little bow, giving closure to the audience. Not Zodiac. Zodiac teases you and flirts with the revelation of who the Zodiac Killer was, and whether or not you know the story of the Zodiac Killer, you are going to go away disappointed, and I mean that in the best way possible. If you are aware of the Zodiac story, you will know that to this day, the identity of the serial killer remains a mystery. For those who are completely new to the case, you will wait until the very last second to see if they reveal who the killer actually was. They don’t, obviously (although some very big implications are made towards one particular suspect).
This film, when deconstructed, is basically a nearly three-hour crime epic, filled with all sorts of characters that come and go, and it is all for an ambigious and unsatisfying ending. By this description alone, Zodiac should be considered a bad film. However, when you add to the fact that David Fincher layers this film with his trademark stylish tension and sophisticated mystery, it becomes entirely worth it.
Every actor involved in this film gives a brilliant performance. Robert Downey Jr. was seemingly unaware at this point that in just one year, he would eternally be recognized and become a beloved performer for his portrayal of Iron Man. Here, in the role of virtuoso reporter Paul Avery, he brings the sardonic wit and sarcasm that we have grown to love him for. Jake Gyllenhaal is impressively good as the doe-eyed, attentive cartoonist who serves as the protagonist of the story. Rounding off the trio of leads is Mark Ruffalo, who, like his co-star Downey, would go on to considerable fame for his portrayal of the iconic The Hulk in the Marvel film renaissance. Smaller roles from people like Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny and Phillip Baker Hall add to the tense and atmospheric experience of this film.
Let’s face it – anyone with a camera and set of steak knives can make a serial killer film. Hell, they can even make a pseudo-biopic on a real-life killer – many people may not know Ed Gein by his given name, but they surely know him by his various other names – Norman Bates, Leatherface, Buffalo Bill, Bloody Face and many others. But it takes a very special kind of director to take on the story of Zodiac, because while he had dozens of alleged kills, his actual actions remain a mystery (the fact that we don’t know who the killer actually was doesn’t help either) – so this is less of a gritty serial killer thriller, but a serious, character-driven crime drama. Much like 1970s political thrillers like All the President’s Men, the actual focus of the film is not on the subject of the investigations, but on the people who are involved in them. It is a great place for incredible character development, and luckily through the excellent writing and dedication from the actors, it is totally rivetting cinema.
David Fincher is an incredibly talented director, and while his films may not all achieve the same cult status as other director’s will, he has crafted some iconic films (such as the ever-quotable classic Fight Club), but I believe Zodiac to perhaps be his most underrated film. Tense, dark, twisted and featuring a cast and story that hits all the right notes perfectly, it is a masterclass in filmmaking, and a wonderful throwback to the tense political thrillers of the 1970s. Purely captivating cinema.