Today’s society still romanticizes serial killers. This may be due to the fact that popular media still portrays them as eccentric geniuses who enjoy toying with a society clearly less sagacious than him (and it is always him, as it is in real life); taunting authority, taking out his homicidal aggression on people who are deemed immoral (or merely annoying) and disappearing into the night as though they are some sort of comic book villain, leaving the authorities forever scratching their heads.
Zodiac does not take this approach. It actually feels very authentic and the main suspect behind the case is a pathetic loner who can barely support himself. If the film is to be praised for anything, the accuracy is a fine place to start. But the film ultimately ends up going far deeper.
The film is based on Robert Graysmith’s (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal) book about the Zodiac Killer. For those unfamiliar with the case, the Zodiac Killer was an individual operating San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s who killed a grand total of five people (although he claimed many more) and subsequently wrote numerous letters to the police and local news papers, taunting their inability to catch him. The case officially remains unsolved. Graysmith took an interest in the case years after he felt the police had abandoned it. The film pretty much follows the events in history closely; from Zodiac’s original killing spree to the leads drying up to Graysmith’s subsequent book on the killings where he names the identity of the killer.
The biggest thing the film accomplishes is destroying the notion of the inept police working feverishly to unmask a criminal mastermind. Many say there were no suspects in the Zodiac case (or the Jack the Ripper case). Of course there were. The problem is that the suspects do not match the mental image that the public expects. Prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (it is history; I do not consider this a spoiler) is portrayed in the film is a loser, clearly intimidated by the police, living in his mother’s basement and a trailer filled with squirrels (which he also eats) and going to prison for child molestation.
Leigh was, in short, not a very effective villain. But then, the cops are not very effective heroes in the film. Why? It is not that they are portrayed as bad, but as normal. David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) almost comes across as a college professor with a bow tie and jacket, popping animal crackers as though he has some sort of tic associated with them . And this is the real man who Bullitt is based on. Imagine what the rest of the cops were like. All I know is that they all like to criticize Harry Callahan.
So what does this all mean? Director David Fincher has completely destroyed the formulaic whodunit narrative, certainly. Police cases never work like that in real life. But is this meant to be a reflection of real life?
That I am not so sure of. The first two acts play well; and then the third act (detailing Graysmith’s own investigation into the Zodiac Killer) does stumble slightly. It becomes the typical cliched view of the deranged loner who is searching for the truth even with seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his way. It has been done before, numerous times. Even if Fincher manages to pull it off (which he does) there were so many templates for him to follow that it no longer feels exciting. Somehow, the audience knows that Graysmith will find his man, and that he may be the only one who knows the truth. Does this approach still bear resemblance to real life?
Yes it does, because it still bears some resemblance to life. For one, the police help him, but recognize that his efforts are not real police work. Frankly, the evidence that Graysmith finds does not prove that Arthur Leigh Allen is the killer. The circumstantial evidence is unparalleled. But the physical evidence is lacking; the handwriting never matches up with the Zodiac letters and no DNA evidence linking Allen to the killings has been found. The case could never be presented in court. Still, the police seem satisfied that at least now the mystery has a sort of answer. The approach was to lead it all back to real life. No more myths regarding serial killers; here is the truth.
The film is not Fincher’s best. Still, it at least was the acknowledgment that Fincher had grown up and was no longer content with directing (admittedly very good) hyper stylized action films that sometimes fell short on ideas (although it is hard to tell considering how packed with information a film like Fight Club is). Fincher had matured, and was ready to make a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.