On July the fourth 1969 in San Francisco, a young couple were out driving amidst the night of fireworks, with she looking to find somewhere where they could go have peace to talk in private. He thought she was acting strangely, but she finally parked in a secluded spot to let him know what was on her mind. They were startled by a car full of teens setting off firecrackers, but more sinister than that was the car which followed them, stopping, driving away and returning. Someone shone a flashlight at them, walked up to the passenger window and emptied his pistol into them both. The Zodiac killer had struck.
The spate of true life serial killer movies that were released in the nineties and 2000s were largely low budget affairs, the likes of Ed Gein, Ted Bundy and The Hillside Strangler for instance, but for director David Fincher's Zodiac a far larger amount of money was employed to bring two decades of recent history to life. It was adapted from the non-fiction book by Robert Graysmith by James Vanderbilt, but this was different to most of its ilk in that, as in life, the identity of the murderer was never discovered.
The crime was never solved, which makes for an open-ended story at best, oddly like the more inconclusive, unhappy ending thrillers of the seventies where much of the action takes place. There are three main characters before the plot settles into following one of them for the latter half: cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), journalist on the same newspaper Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) and the detective on the case Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). In their own ways, this trio grow obsessed with a case that spirals out of control and then apparently dries up.
The reason the newspapermen are involved is because the serial killer has written them, and the other San Francisco papers, a letter, complete with coded message. Young divorcee Graysmith is quickly caught up with a fascination, initially due to his love of solving puzzles, but soon the whole shebang takes over his life, with no sign of it letting go even after the end of the film. Avery is a borderline alcoholic with a heroic sense of the true crusading journalist, although a lot of good it does him eventually.
Toschi is the man in the firing line, piecing together clues from a killer who likes to court media attention and claim other killings for his own. The ones the authorities were pretty sure were his, including a botched attempt, are recreated by Fincher in chilling detail, but detail is what this film is all about. The film is nothing if not meticulous, all right there is a certain artistic licence employed to bring characters and events together, but the period is never less than convincing, with cultural reference points seamlessly introduced to the narrative, not simply as decoration but as persuasive texture - Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" never sounded more menacing.
In many ways Zodiac is Fincher's JFK, an unsolved murder case that still lingers in the mind thanks to its lack of resolution, and even though solutions are offered there's nothing you can be one hundred percent sure of. Although the tension is inevitably allowed to dip thanks to such a long time frame, there are enough scenes to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up to render this more than a simple true crime aficionado's dream movie. Sequences that see, for example, Graysmith come under the scrutiny of the killer, where he receives silent phone calls in the middle of the night as if to warn, "Back off!", or the stretch where realises he is possibly in the house of the killer lend the production an air of paranoia. Only the feeling that the film may be the glamorisation of his crimes this scummy murderer wanted all along detracts from its success. Music by David Shire.
[Warner's Region 2 DVD has a featurette and trailers (including one for the Director's Cut of Zodiac) as extras.]