David Fincher has proven himself one of the most significant filmmakers of the 21st century. Though all of work his been indelible, there’s one film in particular that takes his signature aesthetic and examination of humanity to unmatched heights. That film is Zodiac, an adaptation of true-crime writer Robert Graysmith’s search for the Zodiac killer. It’s worth noting that though the film bombed during its initial release, the ideas and mysteries behind it have only strengthened over time. Fincher’s film is stunning for a number of reasons, whether it be the dazzling technical craft, sense of setting and even cast, all of which call out the director’s attention to detail and reputation as a perfectionist.
Zodiac uses a dramatized version of Graysmith’s own life to thread through such a dense mystery, beginning with the writer’s time as a political cartoonist and the Zodiac’s most infamous era, sending out complex cyphers to taunt the authorities and his victims. Graysmith would go on to investigate the crimes himself after becoming obsessed with the case, leading to the never-proven, but hotly debated conclusion that Vallejo resident Arthur Leigh Allen was the killer.
Notably, what makes the film work is the precision found through the story’s ambiguity. Fincher really does tread a fine line, honing in on the traumas of Graysmith and his colleagues without ever demystifying the Zodiac’s legacy. Three different points of contention are created within its leads, each exposing a self-destructive obsession that rots away from the inside. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith isn’t free of critique, personifying the film’s quest for the unattainable and unearthing dark traumas. Inspectors Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong (played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, respectively) solidify the film’s triptych of tortured souls, each following numerous dead ends with self-destructive abandon. Fincher’s film creates depth from each character, not just visually through the compositions in which they’re all together, but by creating a dense tapestry through their lives. Needless to say, this cast is one for the ages.
Fincher’s approach to story and character can also be seen through his slavish, realistic view of transience and 1960’s Northern California. Again, Fincher’s sense of style is a silent character, creating tension through moody photography and visuals which highlight the tiniest of details. All of this helps to solidify the passing of time as the film’s biggest theme, utilizing time lapses, musical choices and even a montage of the Trans-america Pyramid to prove how quickly an era can fade. Of course, the film’s behemoth of a runtime (157 minutes) also helps to create a palpable sense of deliberate frustration, dragging us into each characters’ impossible search and the pain that stems from their lack of closure.
As a period piece, the film stands as a document of one of America’s most infamous eras in true crime, with an orchestral score and aesthetic that pull us into another time. The film’s setting handled much better than films nowadays, which are chockfull of empty nostalgia and endless nods, but without any sense of purpose. Zodiac ultimately has a timelessness about it, and will live on well into the future, even if the truth that inspired the film remains elusive.