In Vallejo, California, July 4th, 1969, was more than a simple Independence Day. It was a door, behind which lay some incredible history for two young people like Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau. Woodstock would happen the following month, where hundreds of thousands of kids their age would converge in a muddy upstate New York field, take drugs, have sex, and listen to music. Four months after Woodstock, The Rolling Stones would throw their own free concert upstate from Ferrin and Mageau, a concert which would end tragically.
Those music festivals mattered very little for the two kids, who’d driven to a secluded lover’s lane that night, seeking to make some fireworks of their own. That’s when a man shot them both repeatedly, killing Darlene Ferrin, and seriously injuring Mike Mageau. The murderer sent a letter to the newspapers, demanding they print a complicated cypher. He also gave the name he wanted to use:
David Fincher’s 2007 film “Zodiac” chronicles how the newspapers and police worked together to solve these murders, but got nowhere. Another couple was attacked by a lake. A cab driver was shot. Zodiac taunted the police at every chance, certain he was too smart to be caught.
Essentially, he was right. The police couldn’t solve the crimes. They stopped, so the open files were replaced by newer murders; the newspapers moved on as well.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, one man who could not get the cases out of his head. His files grew so voluminous, that he decided to write a book about the unsolved crimes. It became a bestseller.
Graysmith’s introduction to the case was almost accidental. In 1969, he was a young newspaper cartoonist. He followed the paper’s hotshot reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr), as he investigated the case. Eventually, Avery left the newspaper altogether, leaving Graysmith alone in his private investigation.
“Zodiac” also follows two San Francisco Homicide Inspectors, David Toschi and William Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) as they work the case.
What director David Fincher has basically created here is a double-procedural. We see familiar elements of the police procedural when Zodiac is actively killing and taunting, but the killings stop, and the investigation gets pushed aside by fresh crimes. We also see the long circuitous route Graysmith’s investigation takes. He goes through files that have spent decades buried in police station storage rooms. For whatever reason, he simply cannot let go of this case.
The performances here are all excellent. I especially liked Anthony Edwards and Mark Ruffalo as the good cop/bad cop partners. What makes this film so interesting to me is David Fincher’s direction. Yes, there are plenty of his trademark dark, atmospheric settings, but in his other films Fincher seems hyperkinetic, with thousands of jump cuts and flashy edits. In “Zodiac,” he takes his time, and skillfully lets the story play out. His style works beautifully with the material. One of a director’s greatest challenges is molding his or her style to the story—it’s a film, not a technical exercise, after all. Fincher realized that the approach he used so perfectly in “Fight Club” and “Se7en” would not work here. Here, his film follows the story, just as Graysmith’s story follows the clues.
The result is an engrossing film about a scary time in California, one that started on that long-ago Fourth of July.
(Zodiac, Directed by David Fincher; 2007; Rated R for creepy, murdery stuff, some drug stuff, and language)
(Available on Netflix Streaming)