Signs of the Zodiac

Gritty thriller with a clever concept”—that’s how we described David Fincher’s movie Seven when it showed recently on TV. More simply, we could have said: “The most stylish serial-killer movie ever made.”

Fincher managed to make Seven (which also goes as Se7en) extremely good to look at in an ugly sort of way. The style in no way detracts from the grit or the horror—and the relentlessly gripping plot.
Besides one of Brad Pitt’s best performances, Seven has gore and guts and texture as well, and an entirely appropriate faded-mustard colour scheme that makes the whole movie look like it was processed in stale urine.

Now Fincher has returned to the serial-killer idea with Zodiac, but in a completely different way. The Zodiac Killer, or just Zodiac, as he signed himself, was a serial killer who terrorised California for some years in the 1960s and 1970s. He was perhaps the first media-star serial killer, generating a huge amount of publicity for his gory exploits. He did this by sending coded messages to the newspapers; one of them remains undeciphered to this day. He taunted the cops, which is almost de rigueur for serial killers in movies nowadays.

Movies loosely based on the Zodiac Killer’s career and the cops who tried to catch him include Dirty Harry, which came out in 1971, right in the middle of the Zodiac scare. We even get to see the premiere of that film in Zodiac, a premiere attended by the despairing cop who would, unlike the wish-fulfilling vigilante cop Dirty Harry, never catch the killer. From that film a whole stream of serial-killer movies developed, so in a way the director of Seven, the ultimate serial-killer movie, is going back to the roots of the genre.

Zodiac is not so much the story of the killer himself but the tale of several people who tried to track him down: two policemen (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards), Paul Avery, a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle who covered the case (Robert Downey Jnr), and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the paper’s cartoonist, who happened to be a fan of ciphers and puzzles and who helped decode Zodiac’s first message. As the years went by and the killer remained unapprehended, Graysmith developed an obsession with Zodiac. He sifted through all the evidence yet again, and eventually wrote a book or two on the subject. Those works are the source texts for Fincher’s film.

Hence the point of view of the movie is largely Graysmith’s, and that works because it provides a thread through a narrative that is complex and spans three decades. It also makes a change from the usual structure of serial-killer films, which tend to focus on heroic cops and sick murderers, until the desired resolution is achieved. For Zodiac, and the telling of this true story, Fincher and scriptwriter James Vanderbilt have a more difficult task, and they acquit themselves very well indeed.

The movie is long (two and a half hours) but engrossing. At least it packs that running time with incident and information, unlike, say, Spider-Man III, which is of equal length but feels stretched as thin as cling wrap.

Here, Fincher has eschewed the extremely stylised look of Seven. Zodiac is much more naturalistic. When, at one point, and it’s the only point in the movie where Fincher does this, we get some superimposition of text and image, it really jumps out at one. At first, I thought it was a mistake for Fincher to have done that at all, but in retrospect I think he could probably have done more of it and got away with it, because the story itself is so compelling.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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