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Zodiac: Still Going Strong After 10 Years

March 6, 2017


Written by Zachary Beckler – He is a film professor and director of the award winning horror film Interior. Subscribe to his wonderful letterboxd page.

The camera moves impossibly. In Zodiac, Fincher’s first digital foray, he solidifies his experimentations with uncanny camera movement in Panic Room and Fight Club. In the opening shots, we soar omnisciently over the city of Vallejo, California as fireworks are set off in the distance. The movement is too smooth; perfect and unnerving, but not showy. It is contrasted by Three Dog Night singing “Easy To Be Hard”, an easygoing love ballad with dark undertones (“How can people be so heartless? How can people be so cruel?”). The next shot moves to the interior of a car driving through a neighborhood. The camera is fixed out the passenger side window, passing perfect scenes of houses and distant fireworks. The production removed the tires and put the car on a dolly track, sustaining this eerie stillness of movement. In a film about investigation, Fincher shows us only what he wants us to see.

There are only three murder scenes in Zodiac, all appearing within the first 30 minutes of a nearly 3-hour runtime. In real life, the public’s fascination with the Zodiac killer had less to do with the victims and more to do with a general sense of terror; of the possibility of becoming a victim. Who is this Zodiac? What kind of monster must he be? The less we know about him, the bigger it becomes in our minds. In essence, the film is about a collective fear of and fascination with this unknown, but also its demystification; the film’s true success is showing the monster can really be a man, and how much more unsettling that can be.

The Lake Berryessa Murder is the most famous and disturbing scene in the film. Fincher plots it almost as a spin on every slasher movie you have ever seen; a masked man murdering teens at a lake (the Zodiac killings slightly pre-date the genesis of the American slasher movement). The awkwardness of the exchanges, in particular the voice of the killer, lulls us into a sense of safety. If they (we) just do what he says, everything will be ok. Of course we know it will not, and that tension underscores every humorous moment. The imagery of this scene, from the empty landscape captured in perfectly composed wide shots, to the blades of grass out of focus in the foreground (added entirely in post), bring us a sense of both isolation and voyeurism, as if from the point of view of a snake in the grass.



There are two moments that stand out firmly in my mind: First, the woman’s point of view shot as the Zodiac walks up, dressed as death. It is so matter-of-fact and un-cinematic but feels more immediate than any slasher film and all without any formalistic build up. The second, of course, is the actual murder. We have never seen a knife go into living person’s flesh like this. Fincher presents this moment how it actually must have happened, with the utmost craft and respect, and in the process makes it more horrific than every slasher murder before it.

Fincher’s camera captures every detail of this period in an explicitly constructed way, originating techniques he would later refine with films like The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Filming on the Viper Camera, one of the first digital camera systems that captured uncompressed 4:4:4 digital video, Fincher’s post-production team had a full range of visual information to play with. Dialogue scenes were primarily filmed in stationary angles to allow split-screening of the frames and performances, to control reactions and over-the-shoulder shots. In the special features of the DVD, we see Fincher make Jake Gyllenhaal drop his sketchbook over 30 times so as to land in a precisely framed way. This is no different from the level of control filmmakers like Kubrick or Hitchcock imposed, and Fincher’s purpose is just as vital to his own work. He constructs this world to his specifications and limits your perspective to his worldview. The murder scenes are the flashiest examples, like the cab turning a corner and never changing its size or placement. The world moves around what becomes a stationary object.

Environments shift and change around our characters as well, whether it be digital time-lapse construction shots of a San Francisco building, or in the director’s cut where several years pass on a black screen simply through audio. Time, in a way, is the films main antagonist. The further our characters get away from the murders, the less evidence becomes available and the more mythic the killer becomes. “You’re going to catch him,” Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith says to Mark Ruffalo’s Detective Toschi after a screening of Dirty Harry. “Pal,” he responds, “they’re already making movies about it.” Space is the other enemy, as all of the murders happen across city lines, forcing detectives in other counties to work together with analog technologies. A scene in which Inspector Armstrong, played by Anthony Edwards, has to coordinate over the phone with every county in order to consolidate the evidence shows just what a miracle the solving of any murder really was. But space is depicted sonically as well, the characters’ voices almost always mixed with heavy post-production reverb and reflection, like in a key interrogation scene inside a factory’s break room. This consistent echo creates the illusion of a larger space, isolating the characters further within a world far bigger than the methodical framings they are confined to.

The film follows three real-life Zodiac obsessives: Robert Graysmith, Detective Dave Toschi, and Paul Avery, played hilariously by Robert Downey Jr. one year before his Iron Man breakout. While Fincher keeps these figures under his camera’s precise framings and movements (to the point that Downey would leave jars of piss on set out of protest to the director’s relentless digital shooting schedule) the actors are still given every opportunity to create vivid, engaging characterizations and interactions. One the funniest throwaway moments in the film has Graysmith telling Avery, “I’ve been thinking… someone should write a book,” to which Avery responds instantly and carelessly, “Someone should write a fuckin’ book, that’s for sure… About what?” In Tony Zhou’s fantastic “Every Frame A Painting” video essay, he states that within Fincher’s worlds, “drama happens when a character learns a new piece of information. How does it fit with everything they already know? And how do they react to learning a little bit more of the truth?”


This is the essence of Fincher’s scene construction, which a lot of times is expository. Yet he is always able to make inherently “uncinematic” scenes (i.e. dialogue, shot/reverse shot) graphically engaging by focusing his camera on what his sound designer Ren Klyce would call “specifics”. These are moments of focused attention, be it visual or sonic, that accentuate the drama and/or purpose of the scene. It is yet another level of exacting construction he is able to use from scene to scene, and the effect creates a more active engagement of the subject. No matter how controlled they are visually, these moments open the characters up dramatically, like Toschi’s eyes noticing Arthur Leigh Allen, the films presumed Zodiac killer, wearing a “zodiac” watch in a piece of singular coverage.

“There is more than one way to loose your life to a killer,” read the ad campaign. If the first act was establishing the horror, the rest of the film simply sets up the next victims. Zodiac is a film that details an investigation without ending. Sure, Graysmith points his finger to Allen, but nothing is “solved”. The resolution is a personal satisfaction rather than justice being served. This is because the culture around the Zodiac killer and its mystery is far more interesting than whoever the man was, depicted here as essentially a murderous pre-internet troll. The Zodiac is different things to different people. To Toschi, it is simply a nagging unsolved murder. In some cases, the idea fulfills a need. To Avery, its an excuse to succumb into alcoholism and despair. To Graysmith, it was the one time in his career that something interesting happened and anyone took him seriously. To Mike Mageau, however, it was the most terrifying experience of his life. Mike is the surviving victim of the opening murder scene, and it is fitting the film ends on him some 20 years later, still having to be questioned, never being able to put the incident behind him. Shown a series of mugshots, he picks Arthur Leigh Allen’s picture. Though not 100% sure, he nevertheless states, “The last time I saw this face was July 4th, 1969. I am very sure that’s the man who shot me.” The opening strums of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” creep into the soundtrack. The effect is frightening. This was the man who did these terrible things. He will never “pay” for these crimes. And we will never know for sure if he is truly gone. To some, he never will be. In this way, he got away with more than just murder.

But to Fincher, even if it wasn’t Allen, the Zodiac Myth is resolved. The finger has been pointed, the Zodiac’s power drained. It was always going to just be a man. Why construct ourselves as his victims?

“Histories of ages past
Unenlightened shadows cast
Down through all eternity
The crying of humanity

‘Tis then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Comes singing songs of love
Then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Comes singing songs of love”

One Comment leave one →
  1. John Leavengood permalink
    March 6, 2017 7:07 pm

    I probably owe this a re-watch. I saw it when it was released (when I was MUCH younger) and I thought it was interesting but boring. Funny thing: the more thoughtful scripts with slower pacing that most folks find boring nowadays, I tend to love them. I wonder if I’ll love it now.

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