5 Reasons Why “Zodiac” is a Modern Masterpiece of American Cinema

Though the Academy Awards shut out the film thanks to an unreceptive public and an early March release, the stature of David Fincher’s Zodiac has only increased since its release a decade ago.

Cinephiles and mainstream filmgoers alike know Fincher’s name. His auteuristic artistry and his proclivity for a certain kind of chilling, pulpy adult escapism make him largely appealing to all. Fincher quickly shook off his low point origins of Alien 3 to put out great works like Seven, Fight Club and, one of the finest mainstream films of our decade, The Social Network.

Many could argue that Aaron Sorkin’s immaculate script automatically puts the 2010 modern classic at the top of Fincher’s filmography. But the labyrinth of provocative true-crime and de facto perfectionist filmmaking across a sprawling runtime makes 2007’s Zodiac his most impassioned, unconventional and career-defining film to date.

Furthermore, what follows are five reasons why Zodiac is a masterpiece of 21st century American cinema.


1. Fincher’s first foray into digital filmmaking results in a visual triumph


As if he was waiting for this change his entire career, with Zodiac Fincher finally made the switch to digital filmmaking versus actual film.

The Thomson Viper was employed for this project, after Fincher utilized it for many of the commercials he shot in the years leading up to 2007. Zodiac was not shot entirely on digital though – for the slow motion murder sequences he relies on traditional high-speed film cameras, and these brief scenes also point to his affinity with invisible visual effect enhancements; all that CG blood looks very real. His few touches of visual effects in his previous films like Panic Room here blossom into an indispensible part of capturing an uncanny period setting, and this more digitally inclined evolution would carry on to his most recent films.

Many of the transition scenes of Zodiac go by seamlessly due to the unnoticeable integration of visual effects with real environments. His following film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button affirmed Fincher’s own capabilities as a filmmaker grappling with a hefty budget and production challenges.

But in Zodiac, without so much money at his disposal, he makes one-off moments like the overhead shot of the camera following the exact turns of Paul Stein’s taxi and the reenacted time-lapse of construction for the Transamerica Pyramid entirely convincing.

Though he’d been experimenting with visual effects in the past, Zodiac marked an enormous conversion for Fincher’s career as his faultless integration of digital shooting and post-production manipulation was able to further his own inherently exacting filmmaking style. Visually, films like The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have only gone on to confirm that this shift has defined his aesthetic tone permanently.


2. The reflective themes make it Fincher’s most personal work

Zodiac is more or less about all-consuming curiosity. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Robert Graysmith works doubly as an insert for Fincher himself, full of unshaking, resilient curiosity. The opening credits reflect this, as the film’s title comes up just as Graysmith tells his son before school to “learn a lot,” cementing the quest for knowledge as one of the film’s primary themes. Moments like this and the Dirty Harry theater scene also suggest the movie works in a metatextual sense in some small way.

Even the dullest of moments in Zodiac are infused with a fire and fervor because Fincher’s own fascination with the story and the film he’s making is so obvious. Every revelation and new piece of information becomes bracing and absorbing. In a career full of fictional thrills, Zodiac functions as Fincher’s most personal, not to mention most truthful, work.

Fincher’s own inclination toward pulp thrillers with neo-noir elements had generally defined his work before this film, but all of his formal desires seem to reach their precipice and fulfillment in Zodiac. But what’s more than him mastering his favorite genre is his suitable quest for the truth in this film.

Zodiac is elevated in scariness and relevance by its commitment to the truth and a fair representation for the dead. Though Fincher ultimately affirms the suspicions in Graysmith’s book that Arthur Leigh Allen – played with casual creepiness by John Carroll Lynch – was likely the true killer contrary to hard evidence, in each respective sequence different actors represent this real-life boogeyman.

Despite the definitiveness with which Fincher makes his point and sways his audience to follow Graysmith’s line of thinking, the tinges of doubt that shroud this movie give it its characteristically unique unease and peculiar enjoyment – was Arthur Leigh Allen the real killer, or did Graysmith simply need his most burning question satisfied?

For as much as Fincher aims for a kind of clarity in dramatizing the facts, doubt is one the themes that makes Zodiac something to cherish. The story of trying to catch the Zodiac killer is a genuine case of truth is stranger than fiction – the path to enlightenment is unpaved, and the film reflects that in its sprawling scope and narrative unpredictability.


3. James Vanderbilt’s challenging script

Zodiac movie

Taking the biggest break of his career between films, Fincher took time to spend a few months reviewing the facts of the case firsthand, cautious about doing justice to the names of people who could not defend themselves, or could not erase how Fincher would finally portray them. James Vanderbilt’s original script was then improved by new interviews and perspectives of surviving players and victims, including Mike Mageau, the only living person to see Zodiac’s face.

The final screenplay is one of delicate precision in relation to the facts and downright impressive in getting across expositional and factual information. Packing nearly every scene with vital case facts somehow never makes the film feel stuffy or overambitious – even upon repeated viewings, nothing about the delivery or design of the dialogue rings false.

Fincher is notorious for forcing his actors through takes on takes (which Ruffalo respected, Gyllenhaal less so), so perhaps the realist flow of the unfolding true tale is a result of Fincher’s on-set obsessiveness. Yet within all of the facts there is room for character development aplenty.

Discreet humor is Vanderbilt’s way of elevating almost every moment of interplay between our three leads – though Downey Jr.’s Paul Avery provides enough charismatic hilarity on his own – and comedy frequently levels out the nonstop progression of names, dates and moody atmospheres.

A few avenues of misdirection also help to highlight how elusive our titular killer was and how mythic he became. The phony call to Melvin Beli (a refined Brian Cox) on television or Graysmith’s inquiry into Rick Marshall’s past with Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) turned paranoid encounter emphasize the killer’s inherent mystery and the horrible potential for copycats.

And with such an anticlimactic story – a murder mystery with essentially no ending – the film still satisfies. Not only are we pretty sure by the credits that Allen was the Zodiac, but the small payoff of Graysmith’s motivations – his deep need to see Zodiac’s face and know it’s truly him – comes quietly full circle.

But even as the film makes sure emotional beats are there to grasp, the real pleasure of Zodiac is getting caught up in every tantalizing detail of the case and the scripts’ steady deconstruction of American cultures’ fascination with serial killers.


4. A most dynamic acting ensemble


The casting of Zodiac, down to its smallest roles, is worth commending – of Fincher’s films only The Social Network rivals it for wall-to-wall great performances.

Zodiac’s trio is a collection of some of the strongest performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo or Robert Downey Jr., including the past ten years. Gyllenhaal’s work as Graysmith is a multifaceted portrayal of a meek cartoonist turned private investigator, capturing the nuances of his descent from interested passerby to a man with unyielding interest in the Zodiac killer’s true identity.

Ruffalo is our hero for the second act as homicide detective Dave Toschi, who gets extraordinarily close to confirming Allen as the true Zodiac before his career is ultimately dismantled by the case. Ruffalo’s turn as the hardy and finally very frustrated cop is complex and tragic, and though Gyllenhaal is our real protagonist, Ruffalo commitment makes him the acting acme of the film.

Downey Jr. plays very much to his strengths as the drunken crime journalist Paul Avery, who’s coverage of the case turns him into a target and, in his best scene as Graysmith visits him years after their friendship, an aged, boat-housed recluse.

The scripts’ wit needed no help from Downey Jr.’s own unconquerable charm, but he’s still one to be taken seriously here in the right context. The film balances its main characters in a delicate fashion, as they individually become important to the story in an almost unpredictable rhythm. Each performer works well in their own scenes, but the best character moments in Zodiac come from the brilliant interplay between our leads.

Every supporting character is also finely cast and, even for those in just a single scene, extremely memorable. Anthony Edwards is engaging as Toschi’s right hand man Bill Armstrong, and Chloë Sevigny is excellent as Graysmith’s patient, deadpan wife Melanie. And every even more minor role, as there are countless, is as praiseworthy as the aforementioned talent.


5. Fincher’s own meticulousness

There are myriad gratifications to enjoy from the sweat of Fincher’s own idiosyncratic process. Regardless of a script, which is where all of Zodiac’s story smarts and clever exchanges lay, Fincher as a director had only to make his version of the truth as infallibly genuine as possibly, for the many details of this San Francisco story speak for themselves.

While even Kubrick might have found Fincher’s attention to detail a little much, Zodiac’s script allows for a generally mainstream appeal by telling an albeit complicated true tale as clearly and concisely as it can.

The film’s crisp pace is the result of skillful, breathlessly unfolding editing – despite so little action, Fincher’s eye in post-production manages to create a murder-thriller in which a somewhat bloody and eventful first act is followed by over an hour and a half of procedural and paranoid drama.

Only someone with such an all-encompassing vision as Fincher could see a project as intrinsically testy as this one through to perfection. So much of the film’s successes are in what you don’t notice – all of the disparate elements coalesce without a hitch.

Another asset is the film’s well-gathered music. Originally Fincher wanted only period-specific needle drops in the film, but ultimately the inky black, minimally spooky score of long-time composer David Shire was utilized to tonally even out the antiquated pop songs.

The opening murder sequence expresses this counterbalance well – the psychedelic rock of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is rendered almost punk when juxtaposed with the span of the crime. Then with the transition to Zodiac’s call to the police as cops pull onto the scene, Shire’s unobtrusive touch enhances the scene with such subtle creepiness.

The murders aren’t overemphasized, but they were methodically constructed. Beyond the fast frame cameras used to capture the gun-related murders in slow motion, the most disturbing scene in the film is the Lake Berryessa murder, which is both underplayed and utterly scary.

Fincher had trees flown in especially for the accuracy of this sequence’s setting, and this scene wouldn’t have the same effect without them. The Washington and Cherry crime scene investigation was also conceived entirely for the sake of genuineness. The actual location had changed distinctly over the years, and the set reconstruction and flawless CG filling in the cracks makes Dave Toschi’s introduction a substantial cinematic moment.

Fincher seems drawn toward authenticity instinctually. His painstakingly precise visual depiction of the late 1960s and 1970s where the most of the film takes place is but a fragment of his own filmmaking obsession in Zodiac.

As much as Fincher cares about the reality of what he depicts, he also want you to believe the preoccupation of the people involved in the hunt for Zodiac, and to thereby take interest in the case yourself. In Zodiac, entertainment and truth meet at the most blissful of cinematic crossroads. It only makes sense that Fincher’s most fact-based film is appropriately his most scrupulous.

Author Bio: Ian Flanagan is an aspiring writer on film from Pittsburgh and a recent graduate from Pitt with a degree in Film Studies. You can view his film reviews and past published work at filmbriefing.com.