Over the course of the dozens of Cinematic Century posts that I’ve made, I’ve have had to make some really tough calls. The whole point of these articles is to select a favorite film from every year, which sometimes means pitting several movies that could possibly claim that title against each other. And, I really don’t think that I’ve ever had a more difficult week, nor will I for the remainder of the project. Because 2007 was a frankly spectacular year for movies. To the point that there were three separate movies that are among my all-time favorite movies ever made, any of which should be able to win handily, but when placed against each other became the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make for this site. 2007 gave us the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, David Fincher’s Zodiac, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. All of which I love wholeheartedly, and which proved to be incredibly foundational to my tastes in movies. 2007 was my freshman year of college, and the point in my life when I really started to realize that I liked movies a whole lot more than most people, and which set me down the path to blathering on about movies with you all today. And these three movies hit me like a trio of lightning bolts in 2007, majorly shaping my sense of film at the time. I’ve talked about the Coen Brothers quite a bit already on this project, and they’ll come up again, but they’re amazingly bleak No Country For Old Men remains one of their sharpest films, a real gut-punch of a movie that remains the most successful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s whole aesthetic ever achieved. And There Will Be Blood is an absolute treasure, one of the most successful examinations of greed ever put to film, and featuring an absolutely world-shattering performance from Daniel Day Lewis. But, after a whole lot of squabbling with myself, I decided to go with Zodiac, a film that completely dominates my mind for weeks every time I see it. There are other great movies from 2007 that I also love, films like Ratatouille, 3:10 to Yuma, Stardust, I’m Not There, and Hot Fuzz are pure delights, and there are even big films that I’ve never actually seen, like the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford that I’m sure I will love whenever I actually get around to it. Or, hey, I could have been really on-brand by talking about the Simpson’s Movie again. But, it all boiled down to these three essentially perfect films, and out of that battle strode Zodiac, one of the most hypnotic films I’ve ever seen.
Zodiac began life as the fascination of screenwriter James Vanderbilt after reading Robert Graysmith’s book about the killings. Vanderbilt found the entire legacy of the mysterious killings completely captivating, and ended up passionately pitching the script to the point that he was given vast creative control over the entire project. And, once he gained that control, there was really only one director that he was interested in helming the project, David Fincher. And, thankfully, Fincher was incredibly on board. He’d just left a project on the Black Dahlia, and was looking for something new. And, luckily, it turns out that Fincher grew up in Marin County during the killings, leading to the Zodiac Killer becoming Fincher’s own personal boogeyman, giving him the desire to bring this strange and twisted story to the screen. And, due to that, he and Vanderbilt decided that they needed to tell the story as accurately as possible, resulting in them going through original police reports, interviewing witnesses and people involved in the case, all to cut though the myths and make a film as close to the reality of the case as humanly possible. Which, shockingly, didn’t exactly make for an overly appealing project to studios. A film that would approach three hours, feature vast amounts of dialogue scenes, and an inconclusive ending ended up making them skittish. But, after some dealings, they were able to get the budget for the film, and it began filming, utilizing digital photography for almost the entire project. They brought the world of the Zodiac killings back to life, making a slavishly precise film about one of the most mysterious events in American history. And, people generally didn’t seem to know what to make of it. The film bombed on release, despite serious critical appreciation. But, even at the time, David Fincher seemed confident that the movie would find its audience eventually. And, it did. The film has gone on to become one of the most beloved American films in recent memory, and it’s easy to see why, because it really is a miracle of a movie.
The film attempts the impossible task of laying out the facts of the Zodiac killings, beginning with the attempted murder of Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau on a lover’s lane, showing a mysterious man shooting the two kids in their car. And, one month later a letter is sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, along to a few other newspapers, written by the killer and including a coded message. This obviously becomes a big deal for the news staff, and particularly catches the attention of crime reporter Paul Avery and political cartoonist Robert Graysmith. The Chronicle agrees to publish this letter from the killer, who has referred to himself as “Zodiac,” and pretty quickly the code is mostly cracked, revealing a deeply disturbed threat of future violence. And, a few months later, more violence does indeed occur when a killer, dressed in a make-shift executioners hood, stabs two students laying near a lake, before sending another letter into the paper. And, by this point, Graysmith is completely obsessed with the case, having checked out books on code-making, and even tracking down a reference in the letter to a film about hunting humans. He attempts to get Paul Avery more invested in the investigation along with him, but it quickly becomes clear that Graysmith cares about this whole thing more than anyone else.
And, shortly after, another killing happens, this time when a taxi driver is shot and killed, leading the Zodiac to sending a piece of the driver’s blood-stained shirt to the paper. Which is when we’re introduced to the two San Francisco police officers who are investigating the case, Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong. They begin attempting to coordinate with the various cities that these killings have occurred in, jumping through bureaucratic hoops while attempting to collaborate. And, by this point, the case has completely blown up, resulting in fake confessions, people calling into local talk shows pretending to be the Killer, and potentially even fake letters being sent around. But, despite all of these strange occurrences, no real suspects take form. Toschi and Armstrong investigate for months before finally getting a tip regarding a man named Arthur Leigh Allen, who matches several elements of the killer, even having a wristwatch from a company called Zodiac that featured the same logo that the Killer uses in the letters. But, handwriting analysis seems to let Allen off the hook, even though Toschi really thinks that he may have found his guy. And, as time grows on, the cases continue to go unsolved, and appear that that may never change. Society seems to be moving on from the killings, and they appear to have stopped, leading everyone to believe that it’s going to remain a cold case.
However, Robert Graysmith never gives up. He continues to obsess over the case, essentially doing his own investigation while harassing Toschi and Avery non-stop to get more information. Graysmith begins travelling all around Northern California, chasing down leads while the real officers begin folding. Armstrong leaves the force and Toschi is demoted after seemingly forging a Zodiac letter in the hopes of spurring the real killer back into correspondence. Graysmith lets the investigation completely ruin his life, causing his marriage and his relationship with his children to fail, all while chasing wild leads and constantly putting himself into incredibly dangerous positions with potential killers. And, while doing all of that work, he becomes completely convinced that Arthur Leigh Allen is the true killer, and that his ambidextrous writing ability is what fooled the experts. But, he’s never able to conclusively prove anything, even after releasing a book about the killings. We’re then left with the knowledge that Mike Mageau, one of the few people to actually witness the killer, identified Arthur Leigh Allen as the Zodiac killer, only for Allen to die shortly after of a heart attack, taking any closure with him to the grave.
I legitimately don’t know if I’ve ever seen another movie like Zodiac. I’ve watched plenty of films based on serial killers and true crime stories, but there’s something so incredibly hypnotic about this film. It draws you into the surreal nature of the Zodiac case, where nothing makes sense and everything around you feels ominous, to the point that you can’t help but feel as paranoid as the characters involved. We may never know what actually happened with these killings, and who the killer really was, and this film expertly brings that frustration and terror to life. A madman held multiple cities captive for years, and then vanished, leaving no answers behind, and plenty of fear. The film certainly makes a solid case for Arthur Leigh Allen being the killer, but we may never get any sort of confirmation. And, that’s not really what the movie is about. It’s not a documentary that attempts to solve the mystery, it’s about the mystery. And, that’s perhaps why it works so beautifully. It’s murky and strange, and features some of the smartest decisions I’ve ever seen in a movie like this. Hell, even the idea that they would portray most of the major killings in the film, while never showing the killer and having different actors portray him each time just adds to the completely bewildering feeling that investigating these crimes in real time must have felt like. Nothing makes sense, everyone is a suspect, everyone is suspicious, and no one has any answers. And you can’t help but be drawn into the mystery, left just as confounded and obsessed as the characters in the story.
Because that’s what it all boils down to. Obsession. I’ve actually talked about this before on the site, specifically when the Netflix show Mindhunter was released, which David Fincher also has a hand in making. Obsession is a major factor in Fincher’s films, and I think that this film captures it the best. It’s far and away my favorite of Fincher’s films, primarily because he’s able to crystallize everything he seems to want to say about obsession within these three hours. And, the knowledge that he grew up during the killings, and lived in this bizarre period, makes all the sense in the world to me. Because it really is one of the weirder events in modern American history. There have been plenty of serial killers in American history, but few have gained such a mythic reputation, not only because we never found out the culprit, but because of the whole puzzle aspect. The Zodiac was able to captivate an entire city, and it makes perfect sense that people would become obsessed with solving the puzzle. There has to be an answer, and if you’re the type of person who can solve puzzles, it becomes imperative that you’re the one to do so. Robert Graysmith is an amazingly tragic character, getting so completely drawn into this unsolvable mystery, even after everyone else has given up and moved on, that it completely dominates his life. And, not even because he wants the fame and fortune of being the one to crack the case. Maybe at some point that was the impetus, but it eventually just because an obsession to solve it because otherwise nothing else makes sense. There has to be answers to the world, otherwise life is chaos. And, that’s kind of what the Zodiac Killer represented. Chaos. There’s no conclusive proof who the Zodiac was, whether all of the killings were by one person or a whole group of people, or anything really. It’s pure chaos, and if you get caught up in its path, it can destroy you. And, this film handles it all beautifully, crafting a film that slowly drops you into the mind of these men whose lives were completely dominated by this mystery, never getting any sort of closure, and just being swept up by the chaos. It’s a film that leaves you no real answers, and as a result you can’t help but walk away from it with more questions, getting obsessed yourself, the mysteries and images of the film getting trapped in your mind until you can really feel for the pain of Graysmith’s obsession, and the grand injustice of the fact that there are sometime no answers in life. Sometimes it’s all just chaos.
Zodiac was written by James Vanderbilt, directed by David Fincher, and released by Paramount Pictures, 2007.
Categories: Cinematic Century