It’s been a long year, friends. We are near its conclusion and we all hope you’re staying sane, safe and well out there. To even the most casual Midwest Film Journal reader, it will be no surprise that we love puns around here almost as much as we love thoughtful, entertaining criticism and monthlong series that can highlight some of our favorite creators and creations. We thank you for another great year with us here at MFJ. So in that spirit that we hope makes you smile, our December ode to one of our favorite sibling duos: Deck the Gyllenhaals.
“I am waiting for a good movie about me. Who will play me. I am now in control of all things.”
Those were the now somewhat prophetic words of the Zodiac in one of his many letters to the San Francisco Chronicle received in 1978, and 42 years later, he got his wish. Sort of, anyway. Zodiac is a good movie, there’s no question about that, but it’s a good movie in part because it actually has very little to do with the killer himself. As it should be.
The Zodiac case to this day is still a white whale for a lot of true crime enthusiasts. One reason being because — spoiler alert! — we still don’t know who the Zodiac actually was. No one was ever arrested and positively identified, although there were certainly plenty of suspects over the years. So how do you make a compelling movie about an unsolved mystery buried in red tape when what most audiences want is catharsis wrapped up in a big bow at the end of a film? First off, you put David Fincher at the helm. For added seasoning, you then put Jake Gyllenhaal in a positively criminal amount of flannel.
A meticulous reexamination of the real-life Zodiac killings that terrorized California’s Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Zodiac is half police procedural and half newsroom drama with a sprinkling of real horror stuffed into its cracks. The process itself, rather than its outcome, is the underlying purpose. But to understand Zodiac you also have to understand the time and the place in which its events unfold. “In California every year, 35% of murders go unsolved. That’s more unsolved murders than in any other state,” is the line from Netflix’s Mindhunter (also a Fincher effort) that made me sit straight up on the couch. Thirty-five percent? If that was true in the 1970s, do I even want to know what it is now? (In 2008, it was 46%. Oh god, it got worse. I tried to find more recent statistics but I could already feel the ulcer forming.) Apparently the geography works against those of us in this state … something about too many wooded areas and mountains?
That being said: The Bay Area is a pretty great place to grow up, but being in the heart of it, I’ve long been acutely aware of these places. Only a short BART ride from San Francisco, and the location of one of the Zodiac’s final (known) killings, the murder of the taxi driver Paul Stine. Also just a hop, skip and a jump from Benicia and Vallejo where David Faraday, Betty Lou Jensen and Darlene Ferrin lost their lives. Every time I go to Napa, I drive past the signs for Lake Berryessa where Cecelia Anne Shepard and Bryan Hartnell were tied up and stabbed. It all feels haunted.
America in the late 1960s was at a tipping point, particularly in California. The Manson Family murders were just a year after the first Zodiac reported killings, Ed Kemper had already started abducting and killing coeds from UC Santa Cruz (where I went to college some 40 years later). The greater Pacific Northwest in general was a hotbed for serial-killer activity by the late seventies. There was also the moon landing, Woodstock, Nixon, Vietnam. Utter chaos, but what we end up with is an immaculate film about one of the most confusing serial-killer cases in history — with a dynamic cast that makes an almost three-hour movie where they’re mostly walking down hallways or huddled in an office talking about stuff actually pretty fascinating.
It’s like the Aaron Sorkin speciality, but with more murder.
Zodiac’s focus, ironically, is hardly ever on the murders themselves, which immediately sets it apart from other films of its ilk. In the opening scene, we see a young couple mercilessly gunned down by a faceless killer before transitioning to a sweet scene between Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), the San Francisco Chronicle’s wide-eyed, puzzle-loving cartoonist, and his son — both juxtaposing that journey of the first Zodiac letter into the Chronicle building. The escalation of the film is neither in depicting the killings nor glorifying them. The drama is in the consequences that ripple outwards, shining a light on how complicated solving a case like this can be. How these violent events and the investigations that followed came to define and reshape the communities, as well as the lives of the people around them.
When the Chronicle starts receiving anonymous letters taking credit for recent murders in Vallejo and includes cryptograms that supposedly hint to his identity, Graysmith is instantly drawn to the case, along with ostentatious crime reporter and resident lush Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). When Zodiac murders a San Francisco cab driver, Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) joins the fray with stylish bow ties and partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), ready with animal crackers for whenever Toschi gets a craving as they all set off on what ends up becoming a very strange wild-goose chase. And let us not forget Brian Cox’s incredible performance as Melvin Belli, the glorified celebrity lawyer who defended the guy that shot Lee Harvey Oswald.
A cartoonist going after a serial killer who communicates through symbols and drawings is oddly poetic — and the last part ironic, as before Zodiac no killer had written the press and taunted the police with clues to his identity since Jack the Ripper. Just like the validity of the Whitechapel Killer’s written correspondence has been questioned by experts, so also were some of Zodiac’s later writings. There’s a whole dangling thread about copycats in both cases that I won’t get into, but it’s wild. Even in the more condensed version that is Zodiac, its events are word-for-word faithful from Graysmith’s book by the same name, eventually evolving into a cat and mouse game with Graysmith and his target as the cartoonist retraces the steps of a killer, putting himself in his shoes like some kind of Will Graham-level shit. Robert was a man haunted, frequently putting himself in potential danger in the name of unmasking a mass murderer.
“I need to know who he is. I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him.”
The film’s second half is entirely devoted to Graysmith’s one-man mission to find the truth in a case ruled by lost evidence, debunked theories, an endless parade of suspects and the cruelest thing of all, the passage of time. Memories change, people forget things or they just wish they could. Avery has become a full-blown addict, Toschi’s partner has transferred out of homicide and even Toschi himself is eventually forced to move on. But as everyone else’s interest in the case fades, Graysmith can’t let go. It consumes him, the former Eagle Scout graduating from carrying around copies of the Zodiac cryptograms in his pocket to tracking down shady leads as a citizen detective. While the characters’ attentions are focused on Zodiac, Zodiac is focused on the lives of our main characters, giving us a window into the deterioration of their personal and professional lives in connection to this case. Graysmith struggles with his research while also losing his marriage, his job and his sense of self. Everyone’s lost a bit of themselves, and Graysmith is too caught up to be too worried that he’s getting anonymous phone calls.
Gyllenhaal always manages to bring something unique to the table, whether it’s a compulsive eye twitch in Prisoners or looking like he’s never slept a day in his life in Nightcrawler. He’s the funny guy in the corner who got thrust into the spotlight, maybe not the one commanding the room but the one refusing to give up his space in it, and that’s also Graysmith. Gyllenhaal plays him with an infectious tenacity that makes you laugh even when you should want to strangle him with your own bare hands because he’s doing insane shit like wandering into strangers’ basements and banging on Toschi’s window in the middle of the night. The Zodiac case is arguably the defining part of Graysmith’s life, but he wasn’t a trained cop or investigative reporter, he just had the type of personality that allowed for a fixation to take root and push aside everything else. We saw it with Michelle McNamara in her dogged pursuit of the Golden State Killer, though sadly, her story has a more tragic footnote. I wish she was here to see what her hard work eventually accomplished, but as with Graysmith’s work, her book did come to define the case as well.
Arthur Leigh Allen (played by John Carroll Lynch in the film) is a convincing suspect. You want him for it as badly as Graysmith, Gyllenhaal’s earnest performance making his hunger for the truth endearing yet upsetting, eclipsing everything in its path. Graysmith is a train wreck who’s alienated everyone, but he won’t stop until he’s solved the case himself. Like Graysmith’s book, from which this screenplay was adapted and which I read in college, Fincher was also concerned with getting as close to the truth as possible, spending months interviewing witnesses and detectives tied to the case while hiring forensic experts to re-examine existing evidence before filming. (Watch the Director’s Cut for interviews with original investigators and survivors, plus audio commentary by Gyllenhaal and RDJ just complimenting each other for two hours, as a treat.) It shows in their choice to only have Zodiac in scenes where there was a living witness with some account as to what happened and why we never see the murders of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen.
It’s also the level of craftsmanship and eye for detail that really puts Zodiac at a higher tier. The digital film style and costume designs conjure up a Fincher’s America like a mustard-yellow fever dream that was just beginning to lose its innocence, briefly elevating your own false sense of security. The film embodies the energy of the real Graysmith’s tireless pursuit of a killer, and the feeling that the next clue you find might give you the whole picture you’ve been looking for is palpable — making it all the more infuriating when evidence doesn’t match up. There’s a lot we know now that could have helped the case then, like the reliance on handwriting as compelling evidence that eventually dismissed a prime suspect. Handwriting analysis is, like blood spatter, often today considered a debunked science. (Sorry, Dexter.)
Fincher, of course, is no stranger to the genre. I saw Se7en probably way too young, inevitably informing the path I found myself on starting in my teens, but while Se7en is often considered the definitive serial-killer film in almost mythic proportions, Zodiac’s method is more clinical and down to earth. This was an awful thing that happened to real people, and that’s why the murders aren’t shot like traditional horror kills. It gives the victims a voice without unnecessarily exploiting them. Despite the film’s focus on the investigator’s perspective, much of it also has the feel of a movie seen through the killer’s POV, like Peeping Tom (1960) or Black Christmas (1974). From the very first scene of Darlene Farrin driving her car down the streets of Vallejo, it seems plausible that the killer is watching from somewhere just off camera, likely because he was.
The scene in the aforementioned basement is the closest we get to horror in this film. The logical side of the brain tells you the basement’s owner, Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), is playing with Graysmith, who is clearly letting this investigation get the better of him, while the other side is screaming for him to get the fuck out of there the more the tension builds. (Seriously Robert, you went to a second location with this guy? Rookie mistake.) It’s also the first time we see Robert realizing he’s playing with dangerous forces bigger than him, but the more people tell him Zodiac isn’t his job, the more he makes it his job. The scoreless moments in the abduction of Kathleen Johns and the scene at the lake are equally masterful, perfectly capturing real terror without the aid of a musical cue as there wouldn’t be in real life. Sinister and emotionless, just like their would-be killer.
True crime isn’t an easy thing, as it’s a subject involving some of the worst things that can happen to a person. The victims of Seattle’s Green River Killer were so numerous that I’ve encountered family members of his victims all the way in California. It is a small, terrifying world we live in full of ghosts, and it usually either drives one to avoid the ugliness altogether or instead take action. I’ve lost friends to violent crime, and sometimes looking for answers is the only way I can cope. By informing myself on some of the unspeakably awful things that human beings can do to each other, it feels like paying respect to the people no longer here to tell their stories. To raise our voices for those who’ve lost theirs. In that way, Zodiac perfectly captures the spirit of the true-crime follower experience. It’s really about the humanity beyond the horror, and the people like Graysmith who just want to help.
“Just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
The publicity that the book and film reignited in the case was met with hope that it would be solved. Unfortunately, Zodiac is a killer with no discernible pattern whose crimes are now more than 50 years in the past. It’s a frustrating case full of dead ends, red herrings and confusing police jurisdictions. The more you try to make sense of it, the less sensible it becomes. In many ways, Robert becomes his own worst enemy, a cautionary tale to those of us with a habit of getting lost in something. But what’s the alternative? Not knowing? The need to know is what drives people like Graysmith — and me, if I’m being honest — to seek it out. That scene with Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal in the diner is great because it’s nothing but exposition, and apparently concerned for time, Fincher had instructed them to simply talk faster. Also, even if you know the end of this story, it makes you excited for a moment that they’ve finally got him. That it’s finally over.
RDJ’s flamboyant swagger as Avery and Ruffalo’s undeniable warmth as Toschi are a joy to watch. But of the main three it’s Gyllenhaal’s performance that’s always stood out to me as the most relatable in his current body of work, and not just because of the sincere plaid-shirted softer side he brings to an otherwise unsettling series of events. (I counted around 10 or 11, but a few of the shirts looked too similar and my eyes glazed over.) His genuine eagerness as Graysmith and fierce dedication to solve a mystery that has so far been unsolvable is echoed by those who worked on the film, expressing their hopes of a chance that renewed interest would have us finally see some resolution. If only. As always, it leaves us with more questions than answers.
Like the case, this essay was hard to put together. It felt like trying to weave all of these threads into one picture that still didn’t make much sense. I even got a little nervous writing this, as if there was a chance the Zodiac himself would read it. (Phone books and landlines are pretty much obsolete, so I don’t have to worry about any heavy-breathing phone calls. Maybe he’ll make a TikTok.) Ultimately, I wanted to include everything — like some wild-eyed conspiracy theorist directly channeling Graysmith connecting the dots with pieces of red string — but that was never the film’s goal. It’s about a killer who has eluded capture for over 50 years, yes, but it’s also about the victims, and the people whose lives have been forever altered by these events. That’s Graysmith’s journey. One that doesn’t end with the killer’s name, but a road to acceptance that he may never know for sure. When asked by his wife, Melanie (Chloë Sevigny), why he needs to do this, Graysmith answers, “Because nobody else will,” and that’s all you need to know about him. Also, my Google search history may never recover from this essay.
Whether you think the Zodiac was Arthur Leigh Allen, the Unabomber or Ted Cruz (those last two are insane theories but hilarious), the end of the film echoes that uncertainty for the viewer. There’s no real catharsis at the end, as there can never be in the absence of any real answers. In his final scene, Gyllenhaal looks Lynch right in the eye just like Graysmith said he wanted to do and then gives an almost imperceptible nod that’s mostly to himself. As if saying “OK. I know, and you know. That has to be enough for now.” It’s a slow-moving, persistent film that cares about giving the audience the truth, as little as there is to provide, and more than anything, a story about belief. And Graysmith really believed it was this guy.
In the end, it would be easy to say that Graysmith didn’t care about the truth so much as he cared about the truth that fit his narrative, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Maybe after finally being faced with everything he’d uncovered that still didn’t add up to a conviction, he just needed to put it to rest in his mind with the publication of his book. His follow-up novel, Zodiac: Unmasked, makes it abundantly clear who he thinks the Zodiac was, even if evidence and countless investigations couldn’t prove that. Likewise, the movie ends the way the case has. Unfinished. A slow burn with little payoff but somehow still immensely satisfying as we end the film back where we started, with Mike Mageau, one of the Zodiac’s few living victims.
The emotional weight of the final scene isn’t designed to leave you with a sense of relief so much as a sense of real, incalculable loss. It’s an ending for everyone who’s been touched by violence or knows someone who has. What this killer took from them, we can never give back. The kind of resolution we want is rarely ever the one we get. As of this month, it’s been 52 years since the first known Zodiac murders on December 20, 1968. To this day, it’s still a case that baffles many of us. The most chilling realization is that this is a film about a serial killer who today is either gone or still at large. Is he dead or just holed up in a cabin somewhere? Most horrifyingly, is he still living among us, like Joseph DeAngelo was? It’s unlikely that we will ever know, but the Zodiac case still remains open in many counties around where I live. At least we have Gyllenhaal’s wholesome, many-colored plaids to comfort us.