Skip to main content

Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List: #376 - Zodiac


Hundreds of movies have been made about serial killers and the police officers hunting them down, but David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007) stands apart because of its more grounded approach. It chronicles a police investigation that begins in San Francisco in 1969 and ends in 1991. Along the way we follow smart police officers who do their best to narrow down a long of list of suspects, and reporters who try to figure out what to do when the killer sends them letters detailing his crimes. These are all intelligent people trying to outsmart a cerebral killer. Yet there is also a surreal sense of humor as the story unfolds. The manhunt and one of its detectives ended up being the inspiration for “Dirty Harry” starring Clint Eastwood. Imagine sitting in a movie theater watching an actor playing that detective who is watching the movie that was inspired by his work.

When I first watched that scene and the rest of the movie, it was my first time watching a movie at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre. I was studying at Sherbrooke University at the time, but my dad had invited me over for the weekend since him and my brother were in town for a geological convention. Fun for them, but since I had zero intention of becoming a geologist like them, I didn’t have a lot to do in the daytime while they were busy browsing through the booths and talking to old friends. So, after wandering around Toronto for a couple of hours, I got in a taxi and said “Take me to the nearest movie theatre.” The driver smiled, probably thinking I was out of town, and was nice enough to take me to the Scotiabank Theatre. Good choice driver! You walk inside that place and there’s a spaceship hanging from the ceiling, a giant escalator that runs the side of the building, and an IMAX screen. Sitting down to watch “Zodiac,” I told myself I had to come back there later.

Although “Zodiac” follows many characters over decades, three characters take the center stage. The first is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaall), a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who would later write a book about his experience with the Zodiac investigation. He joins forces with Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) a crime columnist for the Chronicle after the paper receives encrypted letters detailing the assault of a couple a few months earlier. The author of the letters calls himself Zodiac and demands the paper print his cipher, challenging anyone to crack it. Graysmith, a puzzle enthusiast, believes he is up to the challenge.

On the police side, San Francisco detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Billy Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are officially assigned the Zodiac case after the killer is linked to the shooting of a taxi driver. Their list of suspects grows exponentially as the killer’s victims are found in not only San Francisco but in other areas of the state. The taxi driver was shot in the Presidio Heights district, a couple was shot in the city of Vallejo, and another couple was stabbed in Napa County. Toschi and Armstrong therefore pool their resources with detective Mulanax (Elias Koteas) in Vallejo and detective Narlow (Donal Logue) in Napa.

As the investigation lingers, the list of suspects increases along with the killer’s notoriety. Avery notices some of the letters received by the Chronicle are fakes, meaning there are possible copycat killers. A man claiming to be the Zodiac calls a talk show to speak to celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) turning the investigation into a national media event. The investigation of Graysmith and Avery eventually collides with the work detective Toschi who tells them to stay out of the way. Avery, who becomes increasingly paranoid after receiving a threatening letter, decides to do just that and retreats into drugs and alcohol.

Graysmith on the other hand continues to pursue the killer for years, to the point of knocking on Toschi’s door in the middle of the night to discuss their case. He becomes obsessed with Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), the one strong suspect that emerged from the joint investigation. Circumstantial evidence points to Allen, but the physical evidence rules him out.

Despite not having car chases or shootouts you would usually have in standard serial killer movies, “Zodiac” keeps up the tension by staying grounded in realism. David Fincher’s other serial killer movie “Seven” showed detectives critically analyzing a crime scene making the audience recreate the crime in their head. In “Zodiac” we see the murders occur, but they are the more shocking by their randomness. The camera follows taxi driver Paul Stine pick up a fare in the streets, drive a few blocks, and then he is suddenly someone shot in the back of the head. Later we watch as Toschi and Armstrong deduce where the killer was sitting and try to figure out what possible motive he would have to pull the trigger.

What is even more impressive about this story is that screenwriter James Vanderbilt decided to stick to the facts and end on an ambiguous note. Was Arthur Leigh Allen the Zodiac? Graysmith certainly went after him with everything he had, to the point of his wife leaving him, but again the evidence just wasn’t there. For all we know, the killer is still out there. Yet as Avery points out, more people in San Francisco were killed in car accidents then by this killer.

On the plus side for me, the movie gave something to talk about with my dad and brother that evening. And you can bet I later came back to the Scotiabank Theatre.    



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #316: Trainspotting

In the 1990s Hollywood directors were the kings of cinema, whether it was for big summer blockbusters or smaller independent films. Guys like James Cameron or Michael Bay would blow up the screens while Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino put the emphasis on snappy dialogue that created relatable characters for the moviegoers. Then in 1996, as if to scream “we can do this too,” Danny Boyle released Trainspotting in the United Kingdom.
Based on a novel by Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, the movie took the world by storm despite having no explosions, a cast of actors who were relatively unknown and a budget that today could barely pay for the catering of a Transformers movie. Furthermore this is not the story of young people going to college to enter a life full of promise, but about young heroine addicts meandering through the streets of Edinburgh. Despite introducing these characters during an energetic montage set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge in …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #364: Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (1994) is not so much a movie as an American nightmare come to life. Loosely based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, starring some of the wildest actors in Hollywood at the time, and boasting a level of violence that unfortunately inspired copycat crimes, it is the textbook definition of controversial. In all fairness there are important messages amidst all the violent mayhem, but director Oliver Stone throws so much content at the screen that these messages can sometimes get lost in the carnage.
Even though the movie came out more than two decades ago it still has a legendary status, which I learned about while reading a chapter in a book about Tarantino’s career. The book, Quintessential Tarantino, contained a lot of interesting facts about the making of the movie and also spoiled the ending, but reading a few words that describe a killing spree is very different than seeing it portrayed on screen. A few years ago the director’s cut became available on Netflix, wh…