David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ explores the complicated saga of a twisted California killer

February 23, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 23, 2018

David Fincher’s sprawling 2007 thriller, Zodiac, tells the true story of the hunt for a notorious California serial killer through the eyes of a cop tasked with finding him and a cartoonist who became obsessed with the case.

The movie begins on the evening of July 4, 1969, when a gunman fatally shot a 22-year-old waitress and seriously wounded her friend in Vallejo, and ends with a short coda in the early 1980s. (This was actually the Zodiac’s second confirmed attack.) Although one of the last scenes shows Mike Mageau, the survivor of that Vallejo incident, identifying a suspect as his assailant, no one was ever formally charged with the Zodiac’s murders.

That lack of closure is one of several frustrating things about Zodiac, which begins as a rather conventional movie about a serial killer and then evolves into something more complicated.

Early on, the narrative focuses on a crime reporter and political cartoonist at San Francisco Chronicle, to which the killer repeatedly sent missives, and depicts a number of vicious attacks. After one of these — the October 11, 1969, killing of cab driver Paul Stine — two San Francisco homicide detectives steal much of the spotlight.

The criminal had a taste for publicity to go with his bloodlust. He sent encrypted messages to three different newspapers, which were accompanied by handwritten letters demanding that his ciphers be placed on the front page or he would kill again. He mocked police for failing to catch him and threatened to attack a school bus, which per Zodiac sparked a panic throughout the Bay Area.

The murderer also demanded to speak to prominent attorney Marvin Belli (Brian Cox) via telephone on a live San Francisco television broadcast — a request that KGO accommodated, although the man who actually called in was apparently not the real Zodiac. Further, the Zodiac claimed to commit at least one crime committed by a different culprit.

In short, it’s easy to understand why this is one of the most notorious serial killers of all time. Zodiac also makes it clear why people like Robert Graysmith, the erstwhile newspaper cartoonist whose two books about the case form the basis for the movie, became consumed with uncovering the culprit’s identity, even after the police seemed to have given up on the hunt.

As the official search trails off, Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes center stage, shunting aside police investigators David Toschi and William Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, respectively) and Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr., doing his usual fast-talking, hard-living thing to perfection). That said, Toschi and his wife (June Diane Raphael) return the screen occasionally as Graysmith calls on the detective literally whenever he thinks he has made or is on the verge of making an important discovery.

Although authorities are deluged with hundreds if not thousands of mostly irrelevant tips when they appeal to the public for help solving the case, one suspect resurfaces again and again over the course of Toschi’s and Graysmith’s searches: Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), a onetime educator who lost his teaching credential after being accused of child molestation.

Allen was a veteran who would have had access to the military stores that were the only outlet for the type of boots whose prints were found by the Lake Berryessa attack, per the movie. He also had clothing and weapons consistent with those associated with the murderer, and his trailer is shown as being packed with squirrels; it’s implied that he kept them as pets, ate them and/or tortured them. (As Dr. Gail Melson, a child development expert, wrote in 2013: “Animal abuse is often the first manifestation of serious emotional turmoil that may escalate into extreme violence, such as mass killing.”)

Zodiac posits that authorities failed to charge Allen because of a series of unfortunate missteps: The state’s handwriting expert who analyzed the Zodiac’s messages may have been habitually drunk or incompetent, or else some of his analysis was simply mistaken. San Francisco dispatchers initially issued an erroneous radio alert that Stine had been assaulted by a black man, evidently leading a pair of nearby officers to ignore the real culprit as they rushed to the scene. A bloody fingerprint found in Stine’s cab never matched up with those of Allen or any other suspect, presumably because it was left by an emergency responder.

The film makes it clear why Graysmith’s fixation would have cost him his marriage to Melanie (Chloë Sevigny) — a true event, according to this website. The film is by turns comical and frightening, and sometimes both, as when the by-then-former cartoonist’s investigation into a seemingly fruitless lead prompts a harrowing visit to the house of a menacing cinema projectionist (Charles Fleischer).

The truly terrifying parts of the movie are scattered over the first half or so and show different attacks around the San Francisco Bay Area. Two targets stand out: Pell Grant as picnicking college student Cecilia Shepard and an uncredited Ione Skye (the female lead in Say Anything) as nighttime driver and mom Kathleen Johns. Fincher’s straightforward approach make these threats and violence more impactful than the overly stylized (although still sometimes frightening) savagery in Manhunter, which I watched shortly before seeing Zodiac.

The case inspires scrutiny and debate to this day; the History channel aired a five-part documentary series on the code used by the Zodiac last fall, for example. Some disagree vehemently with the identification of Allen, who died in 1992, as the killer; the movie has also been criticized for fictionalizing many elements of the case. Web designer Tom Voigt, for instance, claims that Zodiac gives Graysmith credit for information that he himself uncovered years after the movie’s main sequence, and further asserts that Avery and Graysmith never even met until after the cartoonist left the newspaper.

Still, real life can be a bit too messy for the movies. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt — sole writer of White House Down and a contributor to the scripts of the 2012 and 2014 Amazing Spider-Man movies as well as 2016’s Independence Day sequel — certainly faced an immense challenge in trying to streamline this story. At more than two and a half hours, Zodiac lags at points, and some of the attacks are certainly off-putting; even so, the movie maintained my interest for most of the running time, and it even prompted me to look into some of the underlying facts of the case. At the end of the day, despite its flaws, this is a rewarding watch for crime-story enthusiasts.

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