Essays · Movies

‘Zodiac’ and Setting the Scene for a Serial Killer

In the first scene of ‘Zodiac,’ David Fincher makes it clear that catching a killer is no easy feat.
Zodiac Beginning
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on December 2nd, 2020

Not many opening scenes master suspense quite like David Fincher’s Zodiac. From the very opening shot, the film promises to tell the chilling story of a serial killer on the prowl. And the pre-title moments that follow lay out the framework perfectly for one of the greatest murder mysteries of the century.

Zodiac opens on the landscape of San Francisco on the Fourth of July. The skyline is unmistakable: this is not only the story of a killer, but it is also a story about San Francisco in the ’60s and ’70s. The shot itself is idyllic: the camera floats in the sky, dazzling fireworks fall in a mist over the city, and upbeat music plays in the background. 

We then move to a slow pan of a neighborhood from a car window. A location that is peaceful, charming, and joyous. These intentionally pleasant shots perfectly set the scene for the forthcoming infiltration and infection of evil.  

Darlene (Ciara Moriarty) picks up Michael (Lee Norris), and the two go for a drive. Things seem to be going well, but when Darlene gets antsy at a burger joint because there are too many people around, it becomes clear that the two have a secret. Darlene is married. So, they decide to go somewhere more private.

Darlene and Michael settle on a deserted dirt road. Almost immediately, the two are terrorized by local kids. Fireworks go off near their car, and the sparks and loud explosive noises sound like gunshots. Although the couple is relieved to discover that they are not really in danger, Fincher is unmistakably foreshadowing the relentless violence to come. 

And, sure enough, a car pulls up behind them shortly after. Darlene and Michael are both unsettled by this ominous new presence. The driver shuts off his lights, pauses for a nail-biting moment or two, and then drives on. For a brief moment, the couple, and the audience, experience a wave of relief. 

But then we hear tires screech in the background. Our hearts drop. He’s coming back. And, sure enough, he appears behind them once again. His bright headlights obscure his face, and then he walks up to the window and kills Darlene and severely injures Michael. The Zodiac Killer then tells the cops what he’s done in clinical detail — this isn’t someone who wants to be caught, but rather someone who wants to taunt those searching for him, just as he taunted the young couple in the car. 

Indeed, what makes Zodiac so great and so terrifying is the very structure exhibited in the first scene. The film follows the true story of inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) on the hunt for the infamous killer after he sends their police department a slew of ciphers. Also involved in the case are Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). 

Graysmith is our typical underdog character. He is the new kid on the block when the first sign of the Zodiac arrives at his workplace: a cryptogram that reads, “I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forrest [sic] because man is the most dangeroue [sic] anamal [sic].” 

Graysmith is completely enamored with the investigation process, and, ultimately, thinks he has what it takes to catch the killer. And, at first, we think he has what it takes, too. But this decades-long cat-and-mouse chase turns Graysmith’s exciting venture into a sad, soul-sucking obsession. He loses his wife, Melanie (Chloe Sevigny), and puts himself deeper and deeper into danger. 

And, at the end of this near-three hour film, nothing is really resolved. Graysmith essentially ends just where he started. A grown-up Michael (Jimmi Simpson) is called in to identify his shooter. Michael points out one suspect. “How sure are you?” asks a detective. “Pretty sure,” he answers. On a scale, his sureness is “at least an eight.” While some people may see this as a conclusion to the epic investigation, it is largely… unsatisfying. This is the Zodiac. Well, maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. We’ll never really know. That’s definitely not the cathartic ending we were looking for when Graysmith first embarked on his investigation.

But if we look at the opening scene, we see that this was the clear trajectory of Zodiac from the very beginning. Fincher knows this is the best way to tell the story of a killer, following suit of his earlier film Se7en, a cat-and-mouse-style story in which detectives are taunted for sport.

In Zodiac, the killer gets just close enough to scare you and then disappears so that you think you’re safe. And then he comes back once again. Maybe, like Graysmith, you’ll think you’ve got a shot at catching him. But you won’t think that for long.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.