Robert Downey Jr.
David Fincher’s Zodiac, both behind and in front of the camera is a chronicle of obsession. For years, journalists, detectives, and crime buffs worked tirelessly to solve the five confirmed murders, which took place in the late ‘60s in Northern California, where—in Vallejo, Napa County, and Riverside—the case remains open to this day.
Using Graysmith’s 1986 non-fiction crime novel—which consumed him for over a decade—as the source, Fincher features only the murders where either an eyewitness or survivor were present to recount their experiences, so as not to invent any scenarios. The result is a frighteningly precise and attentive procedural.
The first two sections of the film involve a mob of characters from the Chronicle and the SFPD: political cartoonist Graysmith (Gyllenhaal); crime reporter/drunk paranoiac Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), who takes newbie Graysmith under his wing; and inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), who together with the rest of the force investigated nearly 2,500 suspects.
The final section—and most involving—covers Graysmith’s mammoth undertaking to solve the crimes, even if at the expense of isolating his wife and children (“I can’t have them see me like this.”). His days and nights are spent in cluttered property rooms, scribbling notes wherever he can, drowning his living room floor with files, and tracking down anyone who might know anything. No lead is too minute.
Like Graysmith, each of the characters, after dissecting the evidence—ciphers, handwritten letters, et al—develops a favorite suspect. One is Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carrol Lynch), long believed even years after his death in 1992 to be the Zodiac Killer. In his ten minutes onscreen, Lynch, who studied recordings of Allen’s interrogations, lets us “know,” just by his posture, that he’s the Zodiac. And then all the clues come toppling down after handwriting samples come up to the contrary.
The 162-minute Zodiac is a film made up of dead ends and circles, miscommunications and close calls, headlines and footnotes. It will no doubt test an impatient audience. James Vanderbilt’s intricate screenplay spans decades, from the Zodiac’s second attack in 1969 to 1991, when survivor Mike Meageau points to a police photograph and says, “The last time I saw this face was on July 4th, 1969. I am very sure that’s the man who shot me.” But what good is “very sure” when the prints don’t match?
Commentary by Director David Fincher: Fincher provides a detailed track, covering the cast, production/set design, facts about the case, changes in the Director’s Cut, and much, much more, just in time to note that his film is not labeling Arthur Leigh Allen “the guy.” A must listen.
Commentary by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Fischer, James Vanderbilt, and James Ellroy: Gyllenhaal and Downey Jr. were recorded at different sessions than producer Fischer, screenwriter Vanderbilt, and crime writer Ellroy. Both groups are informative and hold great chemistry, but the track is a bit uneven. Worth skipping around.
Zodiac Deciphered (54:15): This seven-part documentary uses interviews and behind-the-scenes footage to trace the evolution of Zodiac. Topics focused on include: adapting Robert Graysmith’s books, attracting David Fincher (and his tendency for many takes), filming (on location and sets), attention to factual details, and themes.
The Visual Effects of Zodiac (15:18): VFX supervisors Craig Barron and Eric Barba take us through the special effects of Zodiac using split-screen comparison between the previs work and the final product.
Previsualization serves as a great companion piece to the previous feature, with special attention paid to three scenes: “Blue Rock Springs,” “Berryessa,” and “San Francisco.”
This Is the Zodiac Speaking (1:42:18): Divided into four sections (“Lake Herman Road,” “Blue Rock Springs,” “Lake Berryessa,” “San Francisco”), this in-depth, feature-length documentary uses archival footage and interviews (with those involved with the crimes firsthand) to trace the timeline of the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area in the late ‘60s.
His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen (42:34): Investigators, friend Don Cheney, author Robert Graysmith, and others discuss the prime Zodiac Killer suspect, noting characteristics and sharing stories and suspicions.