We're not likely to find out what Queen Elizabeth thinks about The Queen, nor are we likely to find out what the Zodiac killer thinks about Zodiac, David Fincher's dogged re-creation of the terror he inflicted on the San Francisco Bay Area back in the late '60s and early '70s. But it's hard to believe he wouldn't be pleased. He was always a publicity hound, taunting the police for their inability to solve the murders he committed - shootings, stabbings, followed by phone calls or letters that offered cryptic clues to his identity. Did he want to be caught? Hard to say, but he certainly wanted attention. And with Zodiac, which never really gives us a good look at him, he's being inducted into the Serial Killer Hall of Fame, next to Jack the Ripper, who was also never caught. But maybe the movie will inspire him to write again...or worse. If he's still alive, that is.
A cross between an episode of CSI and an episode of Law and Order, Zodiac doesn't try to get up close and personal with a guy nobody knows much about. There are no Hannibal Lecter moments, where the monster awes us with his acumen and refinement. Instead, the movie's about the hunt for a monster and the toll it takes on the hunters. The effect the Zodiac killer had on San Francisco, haunting its sleep for years, is touched on but not delved into. But the effect he had on the police detectives and journalists he corresponded with is carefully dissected. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who got swept up in the Zodiac publicity campaign, which was like a series of riddles posed by a Sphinx. At movie's end, he's nearly gone around the bend, the riddles multiplying exponentially.
He's not the only one. Robert Downey Jr. plays Paul Avery, a Chronicle reporter who got his own personally addressed threat from the Zodiac killer before sliding down the rabbit-hole of alcohol and drugs. And Mark Ruffalo plays David Toschi, a detective assigned to the case, for whom it was a slow form of torture to be surrounded by clues and unable to nail a suspect. Based on two books that Graysmith later wrote, the movie finally zeroes in on Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), a convicted child molester who, if circumstantial evidence were enough to get a conviction, might be spending time in Alcatraz right now. But Allen died in 1992, and subsequent DNA tests seemed to clear him. A red herring? Slowly, it dawns on us that we may not get the resolution we've come to expect from such movies. We may not solve the puzzle.
You have to hand it to Fincher and scriptwriter James Vanderbilt for stringing us along even past the point where we're ready to give up and go home. For isn't that what the rest of San Francisco had to do? A police procedural that returns, over and over again, to fingerprint evidence and handwriting analyses, Zodiac risks boring us. And Fincher doesn't indulge in the kind of directorial flourishes that gave his Seven such a creepy vibe. The murder scenes, which, like the victims themselves, are disposed of rather quickly, have a just-the-facts flatness that, paradoxically, gives them an added punch. Fincher also does this little thing with time, constantly telling us how much has gone by since the previous scene - hours, days, months, even years. And yet he continues to dangle before us the possibility that the Zodiac killer will be caught.
Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.