To celebrate another year of David Fincher, we take a look at why Zodiac remains the director’s best film to date.
Every year on 28th August, David Fincher turns a year older, and perhaps even celebrates his birthday. This year the director of such American treasures as Se7en (1995) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) turns fifty-five. By coincidence, this year also marks ten years since Fincher’s best film to date, 2007’s masterful exploration of obsession, Zodiac.
With 2017 presenting two notable anniversaries in Fincher’s real and cinematic world, the stars have aligned into an arrow and they’re pointing towards Zodiac. To honor Fincher’s birthday, and his mystery thriller’s belated tenth anniversary, let’s go back into the Zodiac files and appreciate the director’s controlled tale of the many forms of obsession.
To be a fan of Zodiac is to appreciate the technical, spiritual, and physical work behind it. Whilst it’s of most importance to analyze the finished film itself, the beginnings of Zodiac are a useful prelude to the film’s obsessive themes. On the Blu-ray’s Special Features, writer James Vanderbilt (Truth) described his interest in Robert Graysmith’s original novel.
Based on Graysmith’s 1980s true crime novel ‘Zodiac’, the film departs from its source material in that it’s more concerned with Graysmith than the Zodiac himself. Vanderbilt says, “I read Robert’s book when I was fifteen years old, and sort of going through that teenage reading-about-serial-killers phase.” He continues, “I just was completely blown away by the idea of a cartoonist going after a serial killer. It always just kind of stuck with me.” With Zodiac made seventeen years after Vanderbilt’s first reading of the novel, it’s apparent the writer, like Graysmith, was enamored with the ambiguous ideas and elusive shadows that surround the Zodiac persona.
In fact, Vanderbilt and Fincher both fell or rather stepped into, a zodiac-shaped rabbit hole when preparing to shoot the film. Before Fincher was on board, Graysmith took Vanderbilt to the Zodiac’s crime scenes. By the time Fincher had signed on, the two went back to the people involved in the Zodiac mystery. Per Vanderbilt, over “two or three years, we [Vanderbilt and Fincher] tracked down almost every single person we could who was connected with the case who was still alive.” Pair what Vanderbilt calls “trying to figure out what’s the closest thing to the truth” with Fincher’s infamous preference for shooting many takes for a single scene and it’s clear that there’s an overlap between subject matter and work ethic. And with Fincher growing up in San Francisco during the era of the Zodiac’s murders, there’s a personal touch, too.
Fincher’s pedantic filmmaking style pairs perfectly against the portrayal of an innocent voyeur falling deeper into the maze of the unknown, or a passionate cop yearning for a sense of closure. As Guillermo del Toro observes, “in the case of Zodiac, all the formal elements [dramaturgy, sound, image, etc.] become a quasi-hypnotic all – it lulls you into a different world and takes what was real and makes it symbolic.” The director’s desire to show the Zodiac murders as truthfully as possible may stem out of respect for the surviving victims and the hard work of the central characters, but there’s also a deeper significance at play.
For example, Zodiac’s Costume Designer Casey Storm has detailed how many of the depicted victims’ outfits are exactly the same as they were in real life, thanks to pictorial evidence. In one account, Storm describes how Fincher asked him to adjust a single thread on the Zodiac’s executioner’s hood.
Despite their undoubted effect on the film, these small particulars are not changes the average viewer will notice. The director’s desire for absolute detail also comes from a place of a need to retrace the Zodiac’s steps. In many ways, Fincher becomes Robert Graysmith; the cartoonist chases the serial killer, the director chases perfection. But these people and the viewer each know that Zodiac, and life, is not as simple as happening upon the perfect conclusion.
Instead, the predominant questions that run through Zodiac are why? and how? rather than simply who? This isn’t a film that’s concerned with who the Zodiac is, but why Graysmith becomes so involved in the case and why the San Francisco Chronicle decided to publish those now-infamous Zodiac letters; how threads of a story and of a constructed persona can lead to both collective public fixation as well as intimate, obtrusive obsession.
The way Fincher chooses to submerge the film into these questions is what makes Zodiac his best film. Going further than the disturbed mind of Kevin Spacey’s killer seen in Se7en, Zodiac prefers to look at the sense of fascination surrounding a serial killer who writes letters and the wonder of an infamous partly self-created persona. A murder is not a horror scene in Zodiac, but instead a piece of information. “I decided that whenever we see the Zodiac onscreen,” says Vanderbilt, “it would only be because there was a surviving witness or some kind of police report that […] told us what happened.”
The opening murder and attempted murder of waitress Darlene Ferrin and her friend Michael Mageau (the latter survives) begins with a tracking shot from the point-of-view from inside the car. Tracking the monotonous, perfectly aligned suburban houses, Fincher opens the film with two juxtaposing ideas about obsession. One is repetition; with the repeating houses representing repeating patterns, Fincher foreshadows Graysmith’s (played by a fittingly curious and childlike Jake Gyllenhaal) need to connect similarities. However, the scene also predicts the darker side of obsession, a side where there’s a never-ending journey on a road where everything looks the same.
With this opening murder, the film establishes its tone. This is no gory horror, nor a jump scare-ridden thriller. Instead, it’s a case file brought to life. Whilst inevitably disturbing and even frightening at times, Fincher never attempts to elicit these emotions from the viewer. In fact, it’s the viewer who becomes the intruder. Whilst Ferrin and Mageau are talking, the camera stays outside of the car. The viewer is the voyeur. As the Zodiac inevitably approaches, Fincher’s camera moves to the inside of the car. It’s a subtle but effective move that ensures theirs no over-sentimentality attached to the victims, with Fincher instead presenting the absurd normalcy with which these crime scenes took place.
This well-planned use of camera positioning continues throughout Zodiac, and to go into detail on each of them this writer would need to write a book. There’s Fincher’s generous use of tracking shots, creating the constant sense of a lurking presence. When the Zodiac approaches the Lake Berryessa victims Bryan and Cecilia, Fincher makes it seem as though their legs are cut off thanks to his medium close-up shot. Contrast this with a cut to the full-body shot of the Zodiac and it’s clear the couple cannot run away. There’s also the fact that Gyllenhaal when in the San Francisco Chronicle offices, is near-always the one nearest the camera. This blocking is significant as it builds up to the film’s eventual focus on Gyllenhaal’s character.
With Zodiac containing three movements represented through color, Fincher uses visual cues to guide the audience. The first movement, represented through yellow, is the viewer’s introduction to the Zodiac. Contrasted with the darkness of the Zodiac’s murders, the bright color emphasizes the naivety with which the public perhaps approached the killer, what with the publishing of his letters and what became essentially the readers’ routine morning crossword puzzle. Yellow is the color of the Zodiac appearing in the homes and personal lives of the public through television, radio, and print.
For the second movement, which focuses largely on Mark Ruffalo’s Inspector David Toschi and Anthony Edwards’ William Armstrong, the colors are mostly beige or light brown. The reality of the lengths the inspectors had to go through in order to, for example, obtain a warrant are portrayed in a realistic manner. And after a black screen with audio of historically significant moments, Fincher brings viewers to the color blue.
Arguably foreshadowed by Gyllenhaal’s choice of drink, these final scenes denote the character’s obsession with the case. Even without the montages and overlays of Zodiac articles and evidence, Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith with such a sense of childlike curiosity mixed with a haunted motivation that the viewer would still be able to understand the Zodiac was always on Gyllenhaal’s mind.
With the time-lapse creation of San Francisco’s TransAmerica building, Fincher is showing the passing of time. Yet by leaving out the protagonist’s lifetime milestones, such as getting married or having children, Fincher asserts their insignificance. The only identifiers for a date, time, or location are when they are in relation to the Zodiac.
But it’s not ever truly the Zodiac who viewers are concerned with, but rather the symbol the press, the public, and even Fincher, made of him. As one of the film’s producers says, the killer used the press “as an outlet to create this persona. [A] really scary shadow that you see building and growing on the wall.” And as del Toro asserts, “the Zodiac killings were not just news. They somewhat crystallized the underbelly of an entire era.” By focusing in on Graysmith’s obsession, Zodiac is more than a question of identity. It’s a question of the unknown, and why we become so fascinated by it.
Some say Zodiac has no resolution; that the ending doesn’t satisfy. This is only true if the viewer watches the film with the Zodiac as their main character. But really, the central figure is Gyllenhaal, and because of this, the film’s final moments do have an emotional payoff. Gyllenhaal meets who he believes to be the Zodiac face-to-face, staring him in the eye. He believes it’s him. For viewers, it doesn’t matter whether or not Arthur Lee Allen is the Zodiac; our concern is whether or not Graysmith can move past his obsession. Cut to his novel on a bookstand as the film’s first victim, Mageau, identifies Lee Allen as the guy. As ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ begins to play, Fincher has taken viewers full circle. There is closure after all.