We still don’t know for sure who was — or is — the California serial killer known as the Zodiac, the name he used in a series of letters he sent to San Francisco newspapers in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. This movie is not about some big payoff. There are no “eureka” WHO moments and we don’t get to see someone solve the puzzle and get a handshake from the mayor and the thanks of a victim’s family. We don’t get an “aha” WHY moment as we find out that it all began when Zodiac was a little boy and suffered some major trauma.
A puzzle is what it is. Zodiac sent not just taunting letters to the press; he sent four cryptograms, only one of which has ever been solved. While San Francisco’s investigation is inactive, the other jurisdictions’ files are still open.
This is not the story of the Zodiac, what he did and why. It is the story of what happened to three men whose lives were taken up with their efforts to answer those questions. A superb cast and an absorbing script make a frustratingly complex story accessible and keep even the nearly three-hour running time moving quickly.
Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the chain-smoking hard-drinking newspaper reporter who covered the story. Downey vibrates like a tuning fork, his offbeat rhythms responding to tones only he can hear. It is is heartbreaking to see the sensitivity that makes him a meticulous observer of the world he writes about begin to implode. The movie doesn’t ask or answer whether the stress of being a possible target of Zodiac is what finally causes him to unravel or whether working on the story kept his fragile spirit together with a sense of purpose. It just shows us the toll that the story took on the man who happened to have the crime beat when the first letter came in.
David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong were the cops assigned to the case in San Francisco. They coordinated with Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) and Ken Narlow (Donal Logue), the police officers in the other regions where there were killings tied to the Zodiac. With literally thousands of suspects and no certainty about which crimes were committed by the Zodiac and which by copy-cats or unrelated killers, they are looking for one deadly needle in a haystack that could fill what was then called Candlestick Park.
And then there is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s the newspaper’s political cartoonist. It isn’t his job to write about the case and it isn’t his job to investigate it. And yet, there is something that draws him into it so deeply he will ruin his marriage to devote himself to a story that is twisted and terrible, with an evil genius of a bad guy who is, well, right out of the movies.
Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room) wisely makes this story not about the monster, but about our fascination with monsters. Like Avery, Toschi, and Graysmith, we are pulled into the puzzle, horrified, but tantalized, stimulated, drawn to the edge of what separates us from a human being who could commit such atrocities and then taunt the people who try to stop him. In his letters, Zodiac may have referred to the classic film The Most Dangerous Game, about a hunter who uses humans as his game — in both senses of the word. He sees them as the only quarry worthy of him because they can truly test his skill. In a deeper sense, it is Avery, Toschi, and Graysmith who devote their lives to their own most dangerous game, tracking the Zodiac, who continues to elude them, searching for clues and patterns and meaning in a world where kids on lovers lane are killed by a man who dares the world to find him.
Parents should know that this is the story of a serial killer and there are graphic portrayals of some of the murders. Characters drink and smoke and one has some marijuana. A chain-smoking character also abuses alcohol. Characters use strong language and there are brief glimpses of pornography and references to child molestation. Some audience members will be disturbed by the themes of the story, which include serial killing and the impact on the lives and families of those who are involved in investigating the murders.
Families who see this movie should talk about why the story was so important to Graysmith and what he sacrificed in order to be able to pursue it.
Viewers who appreciate this movie will also like the classic Call Northside 777 starring Jimmy Stewart, also based on a real-life case of a reporter’s investigation of a murder. And they will enjoy other movies about murders who communicate with journalists or policemen, including Dirty Harry (inspired by the Zodiac case and briefly glimpsed in this film), The Mean Season, and No Way to Treat a Lady. Viewers who would like to find out more about the Zodiac case (and perhaps try to solve some of the still-unsolved coded messages) should read Zodiac and “This Is the Zodiac Speaking”: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer. And they might like to take a look at the classic movie that allegedly influenced or inspired the Zodiac killer, The Most Dangerous Game.