Terror tales of the city
Zodiac is a gripping depiction of San Francisco stalked by a serial killer, writes ZODIAC Directed by David Fincher. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Chloë Sevigny, Dermot Mulroney, Donal
SCREENED in competition at the Cannes Film Festival last night, David Fincher’s new movie follows in fascinating detail the hunt for a serial killer who adopted the code name of Zodiac and terrorised the San Fransisco Bay Area for years after he first struck in the late 1960s. The story is true, but it may be more familiar to viewers on this side of the Atlantic as the inspiration for Don Siegel’s fictionalised treatment in the abrasive Dirty Harry (1971), where the villain was named after a zodiac sign, Scorpio.
At one point in Fincher’s film, two of the most dogged investigators of the murders meet in a cinema lobby after a screening of Dirty Harry. “So much for due process,” remarks homicide inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) to political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who became wholly obsessed with the case, to the detriment of his marriage.
James Vanderbilt’s impeccably shaped screenplay draws extensively on the two books Graysmith wrote about the search for the killer. Vanderbilt’s research extended to poring through masses of police reports and interviewing people involved with the case.
The film’s art direction and costume design are equally thorough in authentically recreating a period where people smoke in workplaces, women are conspicuously absent from newsrooms, the fax machine has just arrived, and Hair is playing at a downtown theatre. Fincher, who grew up in the Bay Area and was a child at the time, opens his movie on July 4th, 1969, two years after the Summer of Love and five weeks before Charles Manson’s gang went on a killing spree at Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate’s house in Los Angeles.
The soundtrack judiciously blends David Shire’s spare, moody original score with a jukebox of resonant hit singles, Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man taking on sinister overtones as it plays over the serial killer’s attack on a young couple in their parked car.
A month later Zodiac sends the first of many taunting letters to three Bay Area newspapers, giving each of them parts of a cipher that, if decoded, would reveal his identity. Graysmith, a puzzles enthusiast, is in the San Fransisco Chronicle newsroom when the letter arrives, and he is just as intrigued as the paper’s cynical, flamboyant investigative reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr).
Fincher, in marked contrast to his provocative treatment of dark themes in Se7en and Fight Club, applies untypical restraint, set aside only to illustrate the killer’s cold-bloodedly methodical approach when he prepares two victims for execution in broad daylight against a scenic Napa County vista.
Instead he adopts a classical storytelling style for an intricate procedural thriller as he charts the minutiae of the investigation, which continued for decades, and the toll it wreaked on its participants. He achieves this with clarity and precision, so persuasively commanding the viewer’s alert attention that it never flags over an extended running time.
Zodiac, I expect, will prove even more satisfying on a second viewing, and certainly deserves an award from the Cannes jury. That, most likely, will go to one of its remarkable cast, and not to Ruffalo’s studied Brando homage or Gyllenhaal’s ideally understated portrayal, but to Downey Jr, who is riveting as a selfdestructively addictive personality.
Obsessives: journalists Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr in Zodiac