Blame David Fincher and Anthony Hopkins. With Fincher's 1995 film Se7en and Hopkins' portrayal of the Hannibal Lecter character in The Silence of the Lambs four years earlier, "serial killer chic" was born. These well-made, unavoidably entertaining movies imagined fictional murderers as charismatic anti-heroes, setting the stage for a series of equally gratuitous but far dumber entertainments to take this disreputable conceit to the bank.
Fincher makes amends with Zodiac, a return to the serial-killer genre, which recounts, through actual case files, the investigation into the real-life "Zodiac" killings that terrorized the San Francisco Bay area in the late '60s and early '70s.
The Zodiac killer announced himself through code- and symbol-heavy letters to area newspapers and law-enforcement agencies, one of which threatened to target children aboard school buses. But, unusually, Fincher's focus here isn't on the public hysteria engendered by the Zodiac's publicity ploys, or on the killer himself, or even his victims. Instead, Zodiac focuses on the men -- cops and reporters, basically -- who investigated the case and grew obsessed with it.
In this regard, Zodiac is more reminiscent of All the President's Men than Se7en, with one key factor that distinguishes it from either: a lack of resolution. The "Zodiac" killings remain unsolved, and Fincher refuses to invent a tidy conclusion. The characters here -- most importantly, crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and political cartoonist-turned-true-crime-writer Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Frisco detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) -- are constantly striving toward a resolution that keeps slipping away. And this makes Zodiac a different kind of serial-killer movie. It isn't as "pleasing" as a Se7en or The Silence of the Lambs, but the lack of resolution keeps the movie alive in your mind. You don't leave the theater sated but still mulling it over, working through the details in your mind like Graysmith and Toschi, in particular, have been damned to do.
One of Fincher's triumphs is that his movie is as obsessed with the procedural details of the case as his characters are, so that the movie becomes its own subject. Zodiac never inflates its killer -- indeed, it implies that the Zodiac took credit for crimes he didn't actually commit -- and consistently undercuts the validity of its protagonists' obsession. Avery and Armstrong eventually peel off the case, with Avery telling Graysmith, "More people die in the East Bay every week than that idiot killed." And yet, Zodiac, like an increasingly obsessive Graysmith, can't shake its pursuit of elusive truth, even as that truth seems less and less important.
Always a great technical filmmaker, Fincher is as virtuosic as ever, but here style and content mesh more seamlessly than ever before. The film was shot in digital video, but Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides lend the form a weightiness I don't think it's ever had before. Creepily handsome throughout, Zodiac is filled with imaginative flourishes, from an opening POV shot to a dizzying bird's-eye view of the Golden Gate Bridge. And where Se7en lingered on murder victims as gruesome art objects, the murder scenes here are quick and realistic -- flashes of somber pop art.
The result is easily Fincher's best film. Se7en was artful and gripping but gratuitous, too willing to indulge the fake mystique it helped make too common. Fight Club was bullshit brilliant with doodles. Both of these movies were white elephants in a way -- impressive, but even more impressed with themselves. By contrast, Zodiac is -- even at a two-and-a-half-hour length that leaves you helplessly wanting more --termite art, too busying burrowing into its story and characters to bother with what you think.