2015 Film Essays

We Failed This Film: David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’


We Failed This Film is a series about various films that simply didn’t get the love that they deserved upon initial release. Today, we’re looking at David Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece Zodiac; a film that is tragically undermentioned in his prolific filmography. 

How We Failed It

Can you really say a film is underrated when it’s from a director that is universally thought to be among the greatest working? Well, when it’s his best film (in my opinion) and is so often forgotten in conversation about his achievements, then yes, I think you can say it’s underrated. Based on the actual case files and book by Robert Graysmith, Zodiac follows a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he becomes involved in the Zodiac Killer case, along with crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Detective Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). So, how does a film by such a prolific director with such intriguing source material become underappreciated?

Let’s start with the box office, and while financial returns are rarely perpendicular to the quality of a film, what they do tell us is to what extent audiences saw the film and how much of an opportunity they had. Zodiac was budgeted at a hefty $65 million, meaning that there had to be at least a healthy level of confidence from the studio to front that much for a non-blockbuster. Its widest release was in just over 2,300 theaters, also a sign of confidence from the studio. So why did Zodiac only gross $13 million in its first weekend and cap out at an undeserved $33 million domestically?

The big reason why is because Zodiac was released in March. While it’s difficult to sell any R-rated, 150-minute film that doesn’t have explosions or continuous action to carry the runtime, nobody was doing themselves any favors burying this film in March. It’s the month where you put your B-level blockbusters that you’re not quite sure about, not where you put a moody meditation on obsession and crime that was based on true events. Zodiac is the type of film you open in the Fall — even Oscar season if you know what’s best. The studio basically had a film that could have played to the same audiences as Fincher’s Se7en (released in September of 1995) but didn’t give it that opportunity.

Zodiac also suffered by missing the prime box office days of its lead actor. This was just before Robert Downey Jr. would blow up thanks to Iron Man, and while Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo certainly weren’t unknown commodities then, the two actors weren’t at the same marketable point in their careers as they are now. Basically, if you had opened this film today – with two different “Avengers” in the cast – the box office return would have been much better. Foreign audiences picked up our slack, tossing $51 million its way, but Zodiac still only ended up with an $84 million worldwide return against the $65 million budget.

The film gained largely great critical reception, making the Top 10 lists of film critics Wesley Morris, Scott Foundas, Nathan Rabin and Glenn Kenny, and in publications such as Sight & Sound, Film Comment and Empire. Roger Ebert also praised Zodiac in his review, complimenting the procedural narrative and calling it Fincher’s “most thoughtful, involving film.”

So with all of the praise, why does Zodiac feel so lost in obscurity? Out of all the works in Fincher’s already historic filmography, how is this the one that always falls out of conversation? It’s one thing when a film fails at the box office, but the bigger sin is when it’s ignored by the film community for years afterward. Ultimately, we have ourselves to blame, but we can also partially blame Fincher’s other films for overshadowing this work in the same way you can easily forget Shutter Island when discussing classic Scorsese films. When a filmmaker gives you Se7enFight Club and The Social Network (and later The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl), it’s easy to lose track of a film that didn’t have an immediate impact like other classics.


Why It’s Great

Zodiac opens with a grisly murder scene, and while there are many more to follow, what’s remarkable is that Fincher never plays the scenes for cheap thrills and shock value. These were real people that were killed, and Fincher not only pays expert detail to each eyewitness account and case file, but he also creates characters the audience can feel sympathy for almost immediately. So, when death comes, it’s as gut-wrenching and appalling as it should be. Fincher heightens up the uncertainty of the killer’s identity by having a different actor play him in each killing scene. Also, for what it’s worth, you’ll never listen to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” the same after the first murder.

Fincher and prolific cinematographer Harris Savides shoot the killing scenes in an observant manner, adopting POV shots and even angles to communicate to the audience that nothing can be done to stop the murders. Consider the scene where a cabbie drives through the streets of San Francisco with the Zodiac Killer in the back seat: Fincher shoots it from above, keeping the cab in center frame. He doesn’t intervene with the event, and neither can you.

The film’s pacing revolves around the inner workings of newspaper reporting and the painstaking process of police investigation — what fell through the cracks, near-misses in the case, the jurisdictional tie-ups and the important difference between theory and evidence. In other words, what you can prove and what you can’t.

Robert Graysmith spends much of the film as a protagonist with a tertiary presence. Many of his colleagues disregard him at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Toschi takes his time before recognizing Graysmith as a legitimate help to the investigation. Because of this, there’s sort of two different investigations being carried out simultaneously for the first half of Zodiac. Fincher cross-cuts between Toschi/Armstrong and Graysmith/Avery in a skilled manner, as both the characters and audience reach the same conclusions at the same time.

The passage of time plays a big and inevitable role in all of this. Fincher includes timestamps at various points in Zodiac to emphasize how long and all-consuming the investigation was for these people. Consider the scene where Toschi sits in his car on the corner of Washington and Cherry on the eight-year anniversary of Paul Stine’s murder. After he drives off, Graysmith arrives at the corner for the same reasons. Time moves on, and the world around them moves on from the Zodiac Killer, but the characters remain the same. This case will be with them forever.

Graysmith is described by one of the newspaper staff members as “a fuckin’ boyscout,” and Gyllenhaal fits that mold. Later, someone jokingly asks the character if he’s a boyscout, and Graysmith replies honestly, “Eagle Scout, actually. First class.” Gyllenhaal only needs to show up, and you believe that he’s a wholesome person (which is partly why his work in last year’s Nightcrawler was so incredible). As time goes on, the character’s obsession with the case begins to erode at his psyche, physical state and personal life. Gyllenhaal believably carries this arc, and the reason behind his character’s obsession is something of a mystery of its own; an itch for truth that can’t be scratched.

Downey Jr. was a year away from a tremendous comeback and gives a performance that ranks among his best. The signature hyper-active ego that he would mold into Tony Stark was on full display here, but with a real sense of tragedy as Avery drinks and smokes himself into anonymity. Ruffalo has a natural sense of humility that he can bring to any role, and it’s crucial for his performance as Toschi. One of the great things about Zodiac is how none of the law enforcement figures are presented in classic film stereotypes, but as real human beings trying to do their best. Toschi believes in the law, even as it derails and detracts from his investigation.

Anthony Edwards is the type of actor that you genuinely believe to be a good guy, and it’s sympathetically tragic when he transfers from Homicide for his family, as the strain and the murk of the case becomes too much to handle. John Carroll Lynch is incredibly unnerving as Arthur Leigh Allen, the man who became a lead suspect in the case. He gives just enough away to make you certain that he’s the killer, but despite his creepy and suspicious nature, the evidence doesn’t corroborate with the facts. Lynch doesn’t play him up as some sort of villain, he plays him like a human. It’s chilling a moment when he says, “I’m not the Zodiac. And if I was, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.”

The performance of Chloe Sevigny as Melanie, Robert’s second wife, is both memorable and impactful, and Fincher rounds out the cast with such talents as Brian Cox, Dermot Mulroney, John Terry, Donal Logue, Ione Skye, Elias Koteas, James Le Gros, Clea Duvall, June Diane Raphael, Charles Fleischer, Zach Grenier and Philip Baker Hall — all turning in effective performances, regardless of screen time.

Zodiac takes Graysmith and Toschi down several rabbit holes in their search for the killer while simultaneously thrusting several facts and theories at the audience. It’s difficult to not get lost in all the misdirection and information, and this is a testament to both James Vanderbilt’s script and Fincher’s mastery as a storyteller.

One of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever witnessed is in this film, and it’s due to one of those rabbit holes that Fincher and Vanderbilt thrust our way. Robert follows a lead about handwriting that he believes will implicate Rick Marshall, another lead suspect in the case. He arrives at the home of Bob Vaughn, a theater organist and former friend of Rick. When Robert says the poster that Rick drew is the closest match they’ve had to the Zodiac letters, Bob informs him that he always drew the posters. That’s his handwriting. He then goes down into a basement to check his records and has Graysmith come down there with him. It’s a darkly lit basement that Savides indulges with some brilliant shadow-based photography, and when footsteps are heard from above, Bob suspiciously replies that they can go upstairs and check. Robert hurriedly leaves the house, and it’s terrifying. I’ve watched Zodiac a good 10 times now, and the basement scene always gives me an anxiety attack like no other scene in film has.

There’s a remarkable scene where Toschi is in a theater watching Dirty Harry, a film based on the Zodiac letters and events. He exits the theater midway through in disgust and humiliation. Graysmith approaches him afterwards (the first time they meet) and fills him in on how the film went: “The killer gets shot in the chest…that’s how it ends.” Zodiac is not that film. Fincher eschews all traditional mystery narratives by not making that film. What he does offer is a conclusion far more haunting and far more superb. Zodiac was never about solving the crime, it was about examining the nature of obsession and investigation.

Earlier in the film, when Melanie asks Robert how far he’s going to take all this, he responds by stressing, “I need to know who he is. I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know it’s him.” At the end, he wanders into a small Ace hardware store where Arthur Leigh Allen is working, and he does just that. He looks him in the eyes, and he knows it’s him. Roger Ebert wrote, “It is a more satisfying conclusion than Dirty Harry shooting Zodiac dead, say, in a football stadium.”


Going Forward

As much as a Criterion or an Arrow release would be appreciated and well deserved, Zodiac already has a terrific home release in its Director’s Cut Special Edition. There are only two scenes added that don’t intrude on what was already there, and they complement the procedural nature of the film by further detailing the tedious police work that Toschi and Armstrong went through.

There are two commentary tracks: one from Fincher, and one from Vanderbilt, Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr., producer Brad Fischer and James Ellroy. Fincher’s commentary is fantastic, as he not only sheds light on the filmmaking process, but his own theories about the Zodiac case. For example, he doesn’t believe that the Zodiac Killer was the one who abducted Kathleen Johns, and he isn’t entirely convinced that Arthur Leigh Allen was involved. There’s also an excellent behind the scenes documentary, along with documentaries on both Allen and the investigators.

So, how do you consider a work by a director like Fincher underrated? Perhaps the more important issue is how to provide the deserved praise to a film by an already praised director. Only time can answer that question. In two years, Zodiac will see its 10th anniversary, and one can hope the occasion offers new interest in the film. As Fincher’s career continues, the hope is that retrospectives on his work can shine new light on what I personally consider his best film. Fincher will continue to make classics, but let’s just hope that we don’t forget Zodiac when listing them off.

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

1 reply »

  1. Gyllenhaal claimed in the audio commentary, he had observed all of Graysmith’s idiosyncrasies and was ready to play his quirks (supposedly one of the reason Fincher made the casting, from dual qualities of “innocent/dark” in the Donnie Darko performance.)

    So when Fincher fought Gyllenhaal’s choices, and limited him to only a “boy scout” performance, the entire story as Fincher’s auteurism, answer thusly your proposal of “an itch for truth that can’t be scratched”: Namely, the entitlement to truth of Good Ole American decency, is impossible, and a haunting illusion (often proffered as following the assassinations of JFK and MLK Jr., and predating Vietnam War and Watergate.)

    Maybe part of Zodiac’s obscurity from the forefront of home-viewing and critical discussion, lies in conveying part of a generations-spanning zeitgeist comprised of many pivotal events involving the political-industrial-media complex (emphasis on media in Zodiac, obviously), via a regional urban legend without partaking in slasher conventions (obviously far less bloody than political assassinations, war zone bloodshed – or even the amount of bloodshed in SEVEN, FIGHT CLUB.)