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.