Zodiac is David Fincher’s take on the investigative thriller, an astute character study that’s driven forward by the dark truth of the killer’s crimes.
Unlike many procedural thrillers of its time, David Fincher’s Zodiac unlocks the secret of the genre by never relying too heavily on the facts to make this true story work. It’s a dramatic retelling of the truth – and that certainly doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate, because it sticks closely to the confirmed facts of the case, but the movie soars by making its characters and relationships just as interesting as the objective story. It’s not just a chronicle of the Zodiac Killer’s crimes, but rather an intense investigation into the obsession and drive that characterize humanity’s innate need to solve puzzles. It does this by focusing closely on the detectives, journalists, and even regular citizens who fought against the Zodiac and dedicated their time to bringing him down.
David Fincher developed a strong name for himself over the years as a master of the thriller genre, filling his movies with complex narratives and gripping sequences that keep the audience invested from start to finish. Zodiac is no different, as Fincher uses his directorial talent to reconstruct the killer’s crimes with immense detail and flair, forcing the audience to come face-to-face with the specific horrors of this infamous case. Despite spending plenty of time away from the crimes and focusing on the investigation, Zodiac manages to uphold this dark intensity throughout its lengthy runtime.
There are admittedly some moments (specifically in the second act) when Zodiac’s pacing and momentum begin to fumble, but Fincher always knows how to rectify these cracks in the script by forging even more exciting set pieces and offering the audience small clues to regain their attention and intrigue. But even when Zodiac falters in these moments, the film’s talented ensemble is always captivating enough to keep things moving. Jake Gyllenhaal is undeniably the standout as cartoonist Robert Graysmith, whose obsession with puzzles and riddles keeps drawing him back to the Zodiac Killer’s elusive clues. He perfectly captures Graysmith’s inner conflict, as his growing interest in the case forces him to question just how much he’s willing to lose in pursuit of the truth.
Both Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo give impressive performances as journalist Paul Avery and detective Dave Toschi respectively. Fincher has always been a director who knows how to draw powerful performances from his actors, and Zodiac’s ensemble is among the director’s most consistent to date. More than just a story of crime and punishment, Zodiac is a cautionary tale of what happens when people get too involved and obsessed with the seductively dark corners of the world. Each character experiences and suffers from this compulsion in various different ways, and that gives each individual a very distinct and important purpose within the story.
It’s impossible to discuss a David Fincher project without commenting on the visual and technical prowess – but these are areas where Zodiac doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Not only are the cinematography and lighting just as alluring and noteworthy as you’d expect from a Fincher movie, but the camera movements and precise framing are also excellent. He really makes the most of every single scene, ensuring to place the camera in the most interesting and engaging positions for each moment. It’s this level of craft that elevates Zodiac high above its competition, proving that even the most objective and fact-based narratives can be made thrilling by a little creativity.
Though it’s hardly ignored by most audiences, Zodiac remains the most underappreciated project of David Fincher’s career. While the director is most notable for works such as Se7en or Fight Club, there’s a level of consistency and authenticity to Zodiac that most fans often forget to appreciate. It’s admittedly easy to overlook the project—parts of the script feel pretty uneven, and the fact-based narrative definitely isn’t as original as Fincher’s other works—but it’s a technical feat that’s filled with outstanding performances and beautiful shots from start to finish. Zodiac is the dark horse of David Fincher’s filmography, a near-masterpiece hiding in the shadows of several flashier, more stylish stories.
Zodiac is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Watch Zodiac!