It’s late in the evening on the Fourth of July; a cacophony of fireworks light up the night sky as a caramel-colored Corvair eases slowly down a suburban street, finally settling in front of a ranch-style home where a young man scrambles out of the front door and into the passenger’s seat. The two teenagers cruise to a local drive-in but find it too crowded and head instead to the Blue Rock Springs parking lot, where a car pulls up behind them, lurking for a few minutes before driving away. The two breathe an uneasy sigh of relief before the car comes careening back and an unseen figure walks up the car, filling the interior with blinding light from a flashlight. Expecting the police, the young man offers his ID but instead is met with a barrage of gunfire, which eventually kills his companion and leaves him barely clinging to life.
This is the tragic story of Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau, two teenagers attacked on July 4, 1969 by an unknown assailant. But of course, it’s also the stunning opening sequence of David Fincher’s ZODIAC. Perhaps it’s a testament to Fincher’s enormous talent that the mere mention of the infamous real-life serial killer that taunted the Bay Area in the late 1960’s will forever conjure to mind his masterful 2007 crime thriller, a film suffused with impeccable attention to detail, superb performances and unapologetic violence. Without even mentioning it, the details of the attack hint at a shock of blood splatter across radio dials, the guitar swell of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” and the eerie “good-bye” spoken by the killer at the end of the police dispatch phone call.
The film’s memorable opening actually depicts the second of the Zodiac’s murders, the first taking place the year prior on December 20, 1968 with the murder of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen on Lake Herman Road. It’s a testament to Fincher’s strict adherence to the facts that he chose to begin the film with an event for which he could speak with a survivor, to insure the depiction was as accurate as possible. In addition to meeting with survivors, Fincher, producer Brad Fischer and screenwriter James Vanderbilt spent eighteen months pouring over the case files, meeting with Zodiac author Robert Graysmith, family members of the victims and many of the retired law enforcement officers featured in the film. This dedication to getting even the most minute facts correct is evident throughout the film, from the costume department meticulously recreating the victim’s clothing from police photographs, to small nods by the characters to real-life San Franciscans of note from Fincher’s childhood.
Perhaps this is the reason ZODIAC feels like so much more than just a period piece or a crime film. While the acts of violence are shocking (the Lake Berryessa stabbing is particularly brutal to watch), they are elevated from feeling exploitative by their sense of authenticity, which shows the harrowing and horrific experiences of the victims, while affording them dignity and empathy. For the murder of cab driver Paul Stine, Fincher offers the audience a bird’s eye view of the cab weaving through a labyrinth of San Francisco’s streets overlaid with callers on a talk radio show discussing the Zodiac, a scene more memorable than any imagined conversation would have been.
In addition to the film’s dedication to detail, ZODIAC features exceptional performances by all of the main and supporting cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is exceptional as the innocent and earnest Robert Graysmith, embodying both the dogged pursuit of justice and the dangerous addiction of obsession. The foundations for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark may have been lain in his performance as reporter Paul Avery, who swaggers around the newsroom cocksure and tipsy, but with a sharp insight into the case that Graysmith is often lacking. Rounding up the main cast is Mark Ruffalo, who slips into super cop Dave Toschi’s moptop, bow-ties and BULLITT-inspiring gun holster with ease, nudging Graysmith along a search for truth that his own adherence to the law cannot allow. But even beyond this, a stellar supporting cast led by Donal Logue, Dermot Mulroney, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox and Elias Koteas add even more strength to an already strong film. To her credit, Chloë Sevigny is able to turn a thankless role into a quirky, sweet and necessary one, while John Carroll Lynch is unnerving and menacing as one of the prime suspects, Arthur Leigh Allen.
Although it features a screening of DIRTY HARRY, the film that it inspired, ZODIAC’s most obvious cinematic brethren is Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Indeed, many of Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal’s scenes feel like a nod to Bob Woodward’s interactions with Deep Throat, and Graysmith and Avery huddling around a typewriter in the San Francisco Chronicle’s yellow-and-fluorescent newsroom certainly feels reminiscent of Woodward and Bernstein at The Washington Post. Much like Pakula’s film, there is a lasting legacy in ZODIAC, one that reminds us of the power of print, as the Zodiac’s words come to life, taunting the police and an entire city with coded messages and cold-blooded hatred. Perhaps most terrifying of all is the reminder that while now in the past, it is still a true story.
Ten years later, ZODIAC remains Fincher’s masterpiece. It is a masterclass in filmmaking and screenwriting and, when one considers the amount of digitally created shots (the overhead cab sequence, the Washington and Cherry location, all of the blood in the murder sequences) it remains a triumph of the digital filmmaking era. Although it wasn’t a success at the box office at the time, perhaps due to the killer’s unknown identity and the public’s need for closure, it is a film that aged exceptionally well, quietly and steadily amassing the respect and admiration it has long deserved. In the years still to come, the greatest mystery ZODIAC will offer, aside from the identity of the killer, will be its glaring lack of accolades. Instead, ZODIAC’s long term triumph is its status as one of the greatest American crime films of all time. And, of course, the automatic shiver of terror we feel whenever we hear Donovan.
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Tags: Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Chloë Sevigny, Classics, David Fincher, David Shire, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, Elias Koteas, Harris Savides, Jake Gyllenhaal, James Vanderbilt, John Carroll Lynch, John Getz, John Terry, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., San Francisco, true crime