A Story of Obsession: Deciphering David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ (2007)

David Fincher is a man of many words, and his movies are no different; they involve a lot of dialogue, but the words we hear on-screen are rarely, if ever, extraneous. And not only are his films filled with fast-talking, they are slick, stylish, and moody to boot. His 2007 procedural crime thriller Zodiac is no exception, but more than any of his other works, Zodiac is a showcase for the man renowned for his take on intense thrillers.

He seemingly scales back the intensity here, but beware, that is merely a perception. Despite its talky nature, this cold, calculated procedural is as intense as any of his other films, and moreover, it shows us all why Fincher is a true master of not just the thriller genre, but of cinema at large.

Fincher effortlessly puts his audience right in the middle of his scenes, where no character nor set-piece¬†nor line is wasted. Each and every word, action, and even passing thought moves us one step further along some process — in the case of the first scene below, a crime scene investigation into one of the Zodiac’s killings — to get us to the next checkpoint in the story.

Of course, in the end these checkpoints lead us nowhere but a dead-end, or perhaps a road with several forks in it. The case of the Zodiac killer, as they say, turned cold. But then, catching the Zodiac isn’t really the point of the film. Rather, Fincher focuses on his characters, and more specifically, their respective obsessions with the killer and the winding trail he left behind. Which brings me to the first scene I’d like you to take a look at.

The sequence features Police Inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) of the San Francisco Police Department, as well as an unnamed officer and a lab technician who are handling a crime scene involving a dead taxi cab driver. It moves at a quick pace — in total, what follows takes up just over 90 seconds of runtime — with dialogue traded back and forth between the characters as Toschi tries to piece together the evening’s events by channeling the mind of a killer.

DAVE TOSCHI
Ok. I’m your shooter, a Negro male adult who also happens to be a stocky, crew-cut Caucasian. I flag a cab. I give him this address. Did I give him this address? Who’s got the fare book?

UNIFORM
Right here.

BILL ARMSTRONG
Washington and Maple. That’s one block east.

TOSCHI
Lighting’s the same over here, so maybe I see someone walking their dog.

ARMSTRONG
You don’t want any witnesses, so you tell him to go down a block. Pulls over.

TOSCHI
I wait for him to park because I’m smart and I don’t want him hitting the accelerator when I shoot him.

ARMSTRONG
He stops, puts it in park: boom.

TOSCHI
I shoot him on the right side, he slumps right?

ARMSTRONG
Maybe you’ve got your hand on his collar when you shoot.

TOSCHI
Alright, so either way I just dumped a quart of blood in the front seat.

ARMSTRONG
So why do you get in the front seat?

TOSCHI
For the money.

ARMSTRONG
But he’s dead. You could just reach over the seat, pull out his wallet, you don’t have to go anywhere near the blood. So why’d he get in the front seat?

TOSCHI
I’m an idiot.

ARMSTRONG
But you’re not an idiot. You waited for him to put it in park.

TOSCHI
Right. Thank you.

LAB TECH
Yeah, sure.

TOSCHI
May I see that?

UNIFORM
Yeah.

TOSCHI
I am an idiot, I just killed a man for eight dollars and twenty-five cents. It’s his third fare of the night.

What we wind up with at the close of this scene is a lingering question: why did the Zodiac get in the taxi cab’s front seat? It could be for the money, but as we discover, the cab driver’s fares for the night only totaled $8.25. So was it simply a poor decision the Zodiac made, or was there something more that fueled his actions? In utilizing this approach, Fincher turns the audience into a swarm of detectives, each one trying to beat the other to the punch.

As the characters try to decipher what happened, so, too, do we. Fincher forces us to flex our thinking muscles, to use our own problem-solving skill sets to try to piece together what happened. We will find out soon enough, sure, but it’s much more fun to try to figure out what occurred before the narrative fills everyone in. In this moment, we can quickly see why cold cases often form an obsession within those tasked with solving them, and even within those, like ourselves, who aren’t.

What we discover over the course of the film is that, while professional investigators hit roadblock after roadblock trying to solve the case, the unsolved mystery inspires amateur investigators to take things into their own hands. Enter Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who works just a few desks down from Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the paper’s police reporter, and has followed the case of the Zodiac ever since the killer sent the daily paper one-third of his first cipher.

Graysmith is the everyman, the admirable Eagle Scout who has grown so obsessed with the puzzle that he can do nothing but try to solve it himself. “I like puzzles,” he quips at one point early in the film, and again toward the film’s end once he solves a previously undeciphered Zodiac letter.

Fincher laces his film with piece-by-piece procedural sequences, but we get another terrific one near the film’s close, this time between Toschi, the old pro, and Graysmith, the well-intentioned amateur. Graysmith pounds on Toschi’s front door late one night — or more appropriately, very early one morning — to tell Toschi that he’s discovered a vital piece of information no one previously paid any attention.

And so, Graysmith, in the process of writing a book detailing the case, sets his sights on convincing Toschi to re-examine things from a different perspective. Much like the first sequence above, this one moves fast as well. We follow Graysmith’s line of reasoning as though we are the weary investigator, Toschi, whom Graysmith has awoken, not just from a nighttime slumber but also from a huge lull in the Zodiac case, in order to reignite his passions and shake something loose, to take up the investigation again and catch the man who once filled the state with unnerving terror.

ROBERT GRAYSMITH
Okay, okay. Look at the stuff side by side, Dave.

DAVE TOSCHI
All right.

GRAYSMITH
Okay, Arthur Leigh Allen and the Zodiac, their timelines. When was the first murder in Vallejo?

TOSCHI
Christmas, 1968.

GRAYSMITH
Eight months before that, Allen is fired for molesting his students, and his family discovers that he’s a pedophile. Now when do the letters begin?

TOSCHI
July ’69.

GRAYSMITH
After the murder of Darlene Ferrin. And they continue until you go to see him at work. Now after that, do any of the letters contain swatches of Paul Stine’s shirt? No, because he dumped them, because he got scared, because he knew that you were onto him. So when’s the next letter from Zodiac?

TOSCHI
Not until January of 1974.

GRAYSMITH
He is silent for three years. Then in ’74, he feels comfortable again, because everybody’s moved off Allen as a suspect, and what do we get? Three new letters from Zodiac in January, May, and July in ’74.

TOSCHI
But then the letters stop.

GRAYSMITH
What happens to Allen?

TOSCHI
He’s arrested. January, 1975, they send him to Atascadero. We don’t get another letter from Zodiac the entire time he’s there.

GRAYSMITH
When is he released?

TOSCHI
August ’77.

GRAYSMITH
Allen gets out. He types you an apology, and then what? We get our first new Zodiac letter in four years.

TOSCHI
Okay, Zodiac had to have known Darlene Ferrin, right?

GRAYSMITH
Yes, because of the phone calls on the night of her murder.

TOSCHI
Because of the Vallejo file, we know that Darlene knew a man named Leigh?

GRAYSMITH
Yes.

TOSCHI
So all coincidence aside, Robert, how can you be sure that Leigh Allen is the Leigh from this file? Now Vallejo is a small town, but it’s not that small. How do you put the two of them together?

GRAYSMITH
This is a case that’s covered both Northern and Southern California, with victims and suspects spread over hundreds of miles, would you agree?

TOSCHI
Yes.

GRAYSMITH
Darlene Ferrin worked at the Vallejo House of Pancakes on the corner of Tennessee and Carroll. Arthur Leigh Allen lived in his mother’s basement on Fresno Street. Door to door, that is less than 50 yards.

TOSCHI
Is that true?

GRAYSMITH
I’ve walked it.

TOSCHI
Jesus Christ.

GRAYSMITH
So?

TOSCHI
The prints, the handwriting…

GRAYSMITH
I’m not asking you as a cop.

TOSCHI
But I am a cop. I can’t prove this.

GRAYSMITH
Just because you can’t prove it, doesn’t mean it’s not true.

TOSCHI
Easy, Dirty Harry. Finish the book.

In just under three minutes, Graysmith and Toschi lay out the basic timeline of the Zodiac’s crime spree, and Graysmith re-stimulates Toschi’s interest in capturing the man he spent years trying to catch with no success. They also present to us the irksome issues with criminal investigations: logic isn’t enough, because facts reign supreme. And director David Fincher understands that.

He makes the film ambiguous from start to finish; after all, he isn’t trying to implicate a man. Rather, he wants us to understand the idea of obsession, how it starts, how it grows, and how it can cripple us. The two scenes examined are among the many fantastic pieces of filmmaking that David Fincher puts together to tell the story of this infamous serial murderer and the many obsessions he spawned.

I have no problem believing another director could make a decent, competent film about the Zodiac, but it would lose all the standout things that Fincher brings to the table here: the dark and unsettling mood — juxtaposed beautifully against the free-living vibe of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s — the technical precision, the character and narrative awareness, the piece-by-piece storytelling, the focus on thematics over actions or events.

Most any other film based on an infamous serial murder investigation, whether factual or fictitious, will focus most of the story on the killer himself — his thoughts, his motives, his actions. These films tend to glorify and stylize the killings and create a true antagonist out of the evildoer; these events are those films’ primary focuses, and to their credit, they have a tendency to draw audiences in.

But that is not the case in David Fincher’s Zodiac. The re-enactments of Zodiac’s murders are really just used as an introduction to the story, narrative pieces that give us information and bridge the gap between the serial killer and the subsequent investigation into his crimes and his identity.

Instead of directing his focus toward these events, Fincher gets them out of the way early, and spends the rest of the film focusing on three main characters — Paul Avery, Dave Toschi, and Robert Graysmith — three men who spent a large segment of their own lives on this mysterious mass murderer.

The threesome aren’t necessarily protagonists, and the Zodiac isn’t really a traditional antagonist; just as in real life, we never truly know who the Zodiac is. We can never pin him down, and thus, Fincher turns what could have been a conventional serial killer drama into a character-driven, obsession-fueled crime procedural with thrills abound, subtle touches that make our skin crawl and our knees bounce, with puzzled looks scrawled across our faces.

Not only do Avery, Toschi, and Graysmith become obsessed with the killer and the case, but so does the viewer. And just like that, by finding the perfect story for his directorial sensibilities and by making the movie and story his own, David Fincher created a masterpiece, not just within the chief genres the film plays but also among the entirety of cinema.

You can take your Fight Clubs and your Se7ens, two films widely regarded as Fincher’s finest, but I’ll take Zodiac any day of the week. Each film he makes is great, of course, and I’m excited to see what comes of his future projects, but just as the Zodiac proved elusive and, in the end, impossible to capture, David Fincher’s Zodiac may just be impossible for the director to outdo.

But like the characters in his story, like Paul Avery, and Dave Toschi, and Robert Graysmith, I doubt he’ll ever stop trying. After all, he’s a man obsessed.

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