Few crime stories have captured the public imagination like the Zodiac murders that terrorized the Bay Area in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The case has become part of local folklore, transforming the mysterious killer who targeted couples in remote lovers’ lanes and threatened to bomb school buses into the de facto bogeyman for a generation of Bay Area children who came of age in the following decade.
Zodiac, David Fincher’s new film based on the best-selling books by former San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith, is the first of the story’s many cinematic adaptations to stay true to the facts. Previous films took liberties with the tale, embellishing, altering and simplifying the details for dramatic effect. Thus far only Fincher has had the clarity of mind to focus on the real drama of the story, which is not the depravity of the murders or the killer’s twisted mind, but the investigation itself and the toll it took on the men involved.
In adapting Graysmith’s work, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt have focused on the strengths that constitute the enduring value of the books: that they have served as much-needed compendiums of the facts and theories which had hitherto been far flung among competing agencies in the various jurisdictions where the killer struck.
The film starts with Zodiac’s second attack, after which he sent his first letter and cipher to the press, establishing for the first time in the public consciousness the disquieting reality that a serial killer was at work in the Bay Area. And, with the exceptions of three more scenes depicting later attacks, the film primarily consists of conversations between reporters, editors, detectives and suspects. As such, Zodiac slips into something of a pattern, one familiar from television’s ubiquitous talking head- and dateline-laden forensic dramas. Though the film is well crafted, it still lapses at times into the familiar cliches of the police procedural genre: tense discussions between a skeptical detective and an excited journalist, the latter eager to condense his insights into the “just two minutes” the former has allotted for the meeting; the late-night talks in restaurants featuring notes scrawled on napkins, with utensils positioned as makeshift maps to illustrate pet theories; and why is it that the men in these dramas are so often ravenous, taking huge bites of artery-clogging foods and chewing with their mouths open? Aren’t there any less hackneyed shorthand methods for portraying the driven, the dedicated and the self-destructive?
The actors are forced to bring their characters alive within the limited confines of the procedural genre, and only Mark Ruffalo succeeds fully. Robert Downey Jr. is charismatic and by most accounts effective in channeling the wit and energy of Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, yet he has little time to do so and limited material with which to do it, resulting in a performance that comes across as too cynical, too sarcastic, too one-dimensionally clown-like to ring true. Jake Gyllenhaal too is limited by the material, yet in his case ample screen time actually works against the performance, giving us scene after scene of him nervously jumping about like an agitated schoolboy. We are not convinced we’re witnessing a case of obsession but are instead acutely aware that we are watching an actor employ the standard theatrical devices for conveying that obsession. Again, the details of the performance may be authentic, but sometimes absolute veracity just doesn’t translate well on screen.
But Ruffalo, as San Francisco Police Inspector Dave Toschi, really hits the mark. Toschi benefited and suffered at the hands of Hollywood; Bullitt (1968) made him something of a legend, with Steve McQueen taking many details, including his unique holster, from Toschi, while Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971) maddened Toschi as the hero’s vigilante-like approach to the “Scorpio” killer only helped to increase public frustration with Toschi and the real-life manhunt that consumed the Bay Area. Here Toschi was tracking a killer who was obsessed and inspired by movies and only now have the movies finally given Toschi his due in the form of Ruffalo’s sympathetic portrayal. Ruffalo’s Toschi is brave, bright, articulate and passionate, but at the same time flawed, tormented and ultimately all too human.
The most significant flaw of the film is its focus on Graysmith, a character who, though integral to the tale, is hardly the most compelling figure in the story. Really the main character should have been Toschi, with a late digression toward Graysmith once the official investigation had wound down, but later returning again to Toschi to show the effect Graysmith’s discoveries had on the retired inspector as new facts, theories and circumstantial evidence pointed time and again to Arthur Leigh Allen, Toschi’s favorite suspect all along. If the premise of the film, according to its publicity, is that that the men who waged the investigation and were in the end undone by it should be tallied among the killer’s victims, why is the dramatic thrust skewed toward the only character who managed to significantly benefit from the case in the form of best-selling books and Hollywood movie deals?
For the most part, Fincher’s direction is strong enough to overcome these obstacles, managing to create a film that is stylish without being showy. He stages the murder scenes simply and for the most part accurately, and keeps the investigation scenes moving despite the static nature of the format. One shot adds a chilling but subtle flourish to the murder of San Francisco Yellow Cab driver Paul Stine: The scene opens with an overhead shot of the cab as it winds its way through the streets of the city, the camera shifting with each turn as though locked in place with the car, suggesting care with which the killer choreographed and mapped the encounter, leading Stine on a slow death march from the theater district to the Presidio Heights neighborhood where he would be shot.
Zodiac may be the definitive celluloid incarnation of the case, one that is unlikely to be bettered, but still it encounters the same dilemma that stymied the creators of last year’s low-budget version, The Zodiac: There’s just no way to effectively conclude the film, for there is no definite conclusion to the real-life story. Once again, Fincher turns to the Graysmith character with a scene in which Gyllenhaal finally gets to look the killer in the eye. But whatever emotional impact the scene might have achieved is undermined by the fact that we, the audience, have already looked into these eyes in an earlier scene. Again, a better conclusion might have been wrung from the fates of Toschi or Avery.
Instead the anti-climactic encounter is followed simply by the standard coda in which we read what later became of each of the characters. It is a strong film, at times even a powerful film, and its strength lies in its adherence to facts. However, veracity doesn’t necessarily make for great art. Reality is rarely obliging in that way.
Directed by David Fincher. Written by James Vanderbilt. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards. Rated R.
160 minutes. Playing at the California Theater.
Photograph: Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. as San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith and reporter Paul Avery in David Fincher’s Zodiac.