The beauty in the detail

Zodiac

Directed by David Fincher

Written by James Vanderbilt, based on two books by Robert Graysmith

Rated MA, 157 minutes

4.5 stars

Zodiac is long and complicated and it doesn’t deliver a neat ending, but I don’t expect to see a better crime movie this year.

It’s about the Zodiac killer, who’s credited with five murders and two attempted murders in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960’s, and it’s directed by David Fincher, who made Se7en, Fight Club and Panic Room. Some people loathe his films, because they’re often diabolically violent, but he’s regarded by his peers as a director’s director, one of the most visually inventive craftsmen of his generation. This is his best film so far and I think it will be remembered for a long time, mostly for the way it challenges the rules of how to tell complex stories on film. A large part of the credit for that goes to James Vanderbilt’s brilliant script, which organises the mountains of detail into memorable chapters, throwing caution to the wind as it flits back and forth in time, confident that we’ll get it.

There are similarities with Se7en – a very smart serial killer for one thing – but Zodiac is neither as manipulative as Se7en nor as perfectly constructed as Panic Room. It shows a different Fincher – his direction is ebullient and fluid like Scorsese, but cool like De Palma or Hitchcock. This film lives in its time, in a widescreen recreation of late 60’s San Francisco that captures the city’s beauty without becoming nostalgic or cliched. There are lots of shots of breathtaking beauty and invention – and the whole film has a burnished glow that comes from the High Definition Thompson camera – but the look isn’t the only thing. His earlier films were showcases for a prodigious developing talent. Zodiac is the film that Fincher has been training to make. He cares more about this one, and that makes it engrossing for all of its 157 minutes.

The key may be that Fincher was seven years old and living in Marin County when Zodiac started writing letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, threatening to shoot children on school buses. If that plot idea is familiar, it’s because it turned up soon after in Dirty Harry, the 1971 Clint Eastwood film set in San Francisco, in which the villain called himself Scorpio. There have been at least two other movies based on the Zodiac case and several books, all of which would have pleased the killer. He was nothing if not media savvy. That’s one of the ideas Fincher explores in Zodiac – that media attention fed the killer’s ego, and may have prolonged his activities.

The film breaks several rules, so let me lay those out: first, it’s generally thought impossible for fiction film to cope well with true stories of great detail and complexity, and still stay close to facts. Zodiac busts that myth wide open. It’s a masterpiece of clarity and complexity, especially when you consider the next rule it breaks – that audiences won’t accept doubt, especially not at this length. No-one knows who the Zodiac killer is, or was. The film leaves you with a strong idea of who it might have been, but it never pretends to be certain. This runs counter to all traditions of story-telling, in which finally knowing what happened is the payoff. Fincher offers another truth – Zodiac is about the trauma of not knowing. This is the story of three men – played by Robert Downey Junior, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo  – whose lives are substantially damaged by the failure to know, or catch, the Zodiac killer.

I don’t know whether audiences will accept so much uncertainty, but they might, because the movie pays off in other ways. Most important is the sense that it’s not lying to us. This lack of a simple answer is something we all experience all the time and yet few films honestly reflect that. Zodiac is all about that. It shreds the conventions of the ‘hero’s journey’. These three men enter a toxic maze from which there is no exit, easy or hard. Their heroism – though it’s never treated as such – is that they keep going anyway, trying to figure it out (although Downey’s character falls by the wayside, a victim of drink and drugs).

The key role goes to Gyllenhaal, who’s terrific, as ever. He’s Robert Graysmith, who was a new political cartoonist at the Chronicle when the Zodiac letters started arriving (the script is based largely on the two books he wrote about the case). The movie Graysmith is shy and unassuming, a divorced father looking after two kids, but also a puzzle-nut. The Zodiac’s first letter demands that the newspaper publish a page of code, which he says contains his name. The Chronicle’s dissolute crime reporter Paul Avery (Downey) ignores Graysmith, because he’s not a reporter, but Graysmith comes up with an intriguing theory. The Zodiac code seems to contain a reference to a 1932 movie, The Most Dangerous Game, in which a madman hunts human prey. Avery and Graysmith become allies on the case, as more letters arrive with more code and more boasts about the people he has killed.

The first two murders occur outside San Francisco, in Benicia and Vallejo, so they’re under different police departments. Inspector Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) of the SFPD gets involved when the Zodiac killer shoots a cab driver late one night near the Presidio, the San Francisco military base. Toschi is a legendary San Francisco detective – the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s character in Bullitt, as well as ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan and Michael Douglas’s character in The Streets of San Francisco. Nevertheless Ruffalo manages to make him seem completely unlike any of them – a slightly rumpled, but very smart working cop with a great knowledge of human nature.

Fincher details all of these attacks, and another in the Napa Valley in September 1969, where the killer used a knife. Three of these attacks are on young couples and each is an escalation of the killer’s emotions (the knife attack is particularly brutal and unhinged). In each case, we don’t get a clear sense of the killer’s face or build. We’re left with conflicting descriptions and none of the privileged viewpoint that movies normally offer. This folds us deeper into the mystery: we want desperately to know who he is, just as these three men do.

Zodiac is further evidence that a renaissance is happening in pockets of Hollywood. It’s inspired partly by films like The Conversation and All the President’s Men, the taut political thrillers of the 1970’s. The film is part of a movement to bring raw complexity back into narrative, after two decades of over-simplification. It’s a sensational example of the beauty in the detail – poignant, provocative and haunting.