by Javier Solórzano Casarin
In 2007, the brilliant psychological thriller “Zodiac” — from one of the masters of modern suspense, David Fincher — hit theaters worldwide.
The story unfolds in the 70s and carries on until the late 90’s. It was this during this period of time that one of the longest and most meticulous manhunts took place in American contemporary history.
The San Francisco Police Department, local police from several counties of Southern California, the FBI and various intelligence agencies were entangled in the search for a serial killer who was seemingly always one step ahead. It was a case that in the context of a voracious news media and the latent social paranoia, changed the region for decades to come.
Since this is a Fincher film, as it is the case throughout of all of his film work, we can say that the devil is in the details. Painstaking narrative and methodical cinematic language tells us the story and the internal conflict of its characters, equating to the obsessive nature of reality that inspired the film.
One of the best known traits of American society is not only the brutal violence that accompanies its seemingly idyllic mundane life, more significantly the way the media exploits such violence for their own benefit. The protagonists (serial killers) of the most infamous murder cases become celebrities; stars of the collective imaginary.
The Zodiac case is a journalistic account based on Robert Graysmith’s book, the source for the script of this film. A succulent invitation to the darkest corners of the human mind.
The old logo of Paramount Pictures, the fireworks on July 4th, glinting over the bay, and the song “Easy to be Hard” by Three Dog Night, invite us to the streets of the County of Vallejo, forty minutes away from San Francisco. Two people — an attractive and popular young woman and her even younger admirer — drive between suburban dream homes, heading toward a scenic spot in the middle of nowhere; they flirt awkwardly. A stranger in a sinister black car parks behind them, he drives away only to come back a few minutes later. A man steps out of the car, shines a flashlight on their faces before shooting them several times at point blank.
The year was 1969 and this was the first official murder attributed to the Zodiac killer.
Days after the murder, someone anonymously sent letters to the Vallejo County police and the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner newspapers. In the letters, a man takes responsibility for the murder of the young woman in Vallejo, other similar murder cases and threatens to kill more innocent people. The envelope includes a cypher with strange symbols that reveals his identity. It is from this point on that the legend of the Zodiac widen in its fascination and transcended the popular masses.
Fincher’s storyline is not so much focused on the killer as a dramatic figure; the weight of the story lies on the irremediable obsession that afflicts the film’s three protagonists — Cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr). For almost three decades, these three men engaged themselves in body and soul to the pursuit of this mysterious killer. In the process, they sacrificed a part of their sanity and eventually, the gruesome nature of the case altered them forever.
That’s what makes “Zodiac”, a crime drama and thriller, a masterpiece. A film which main interest is not the cunning murderer himself and his inner demons, but the morbid fascination that mesmerizes those who seek his trail.
The meticulous editing, cinematography, production design and original score (courtesy of David Shire, composer of “All the President’s Men” and “The Conversation”) evokes the dreary atmosphere in all its variations; through indoors and outdoors scenes, through day and night. The basement scene is particularly shocking, told without any of the elaborate storytelling tricks that most thrillers would utilize; the resources of sound design, lighting and acting work as essential elements to guide us, the audience, within the perverse world of the film.
“Zodiac” is a film that conveys one of the most basic impulses of human beings — our sense of curiosity and our morbid appetite to know the true face of horror- it functions as our own deeper knowledge, striding to have the answers to a riddle or a terrifying mystery. The three lead actors who are clearly led by a brilliant Fincher, manage to express these dilemmas with powerful performances.
This film shows us the paradigms of contemporary man and at the same time of American society, which immersed in popular culture, overwhelmed with instant and bombastic entertainment, technology, the pathology of violence as an identity of “the American Dream”; it yearns to intimately know its inner demons. No matter the consequences.