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Zodiac (2007)

On December 20, 1968, two teenagers, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, were shot to death in their parked car on Lake Herman Road in Vallejo. On July 4, 1969, again in Vallejo, Darlene Ferrin was shot and killed, Michael Mageau shot and badly injured by a man who approached their parked car and began firing at them. A half hour later the shooter called police and said: "I want to report a double murder. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye." Later that month the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the Vallejo Times-Herald received the first of what would be a series of communications--cards, letters, phone calls--to them, their staff, the police, maybe even celebrity attorney Melvin Belli, etc., from the man who became know as the Zodiac Killer. Included with the distinctively written, worded, and stamped letter was a homemade cypher that was cracked by a school teacher and his wife, despite the fact that professionals and various government agencies were all struggling with it.

On Sept. 27, 1969, two college students out for a picnic lunch at Lake Berryessa, Napa County, were approached by a hooded man dressed in black, he showed them a gun, forced Cecilia Shepard to tie up Bryan Hartnell and then tied her up himself. While he stabbed both repeatedly, she died but Hartnell survived. Then, on Oct. 11, 1969, a taxi driver, Paul Lee Stine, was shot and killed by a passenger at Cherry and Washington streets in Presidio Heights. Communications continued to come from the Zodiac killer for years, but these five deaths are the only ones that are attributed to him with some certainty. He claimed a casualty count of 37 and several other thwarted attacks a that time seemed like they might have been his work. The identity of the killer has never been proved and the last (disputed) letter was sent to the SF Chronicle on April 24, 1978.

Even setting aside the basic mystery of how someone could get away with this killing spree, the taunting letters, the proximity of the crimes to water, geographically and holidays, chronologically, and innumerable other elements make it easy to see why the case would haunt those involved. Just to cite two other bizarre sidelight: his costume at the Lake Berryessa stabbing appears to have been based on that of Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game, the 1932 film based on a story we all used to read in school, by Richard Connell; and, one of the letters was a deranged parody of The Mikado. Weirdness piled upon weirdness...

When the first letter came to the SF Chronicle, Robert Graysmith was the paper's political cartoonist and so was at the editorial board meeting where it was read. He was particularly intrigued by the cipher. Thus began what would become a forty-year obsession that was the basis for not only two books and a movie but a ruined marriage.

Also present at that meeting was the Chronicle's police reporter, Paul Avery, who would become the journalist most closely associated with the story. He eventually tracked down earlier murders that he attributed to Zodiac and the killer began sending him threatening correspondence, leading fellow reporters to don buttons that read "I am not Paul Avery." Avery's career at the Chronicle was cut short by alcohol and drugs. He died of pulmonary emphysema at age 66.

The two main homicide investigators from the SFPD were David Toschi, upon whom Steve McQueen's character in Bullitt was based, and William Armstrong. Armstrong eventually moved from homicide to the bunko squad. Toschi, locked in a political battle within the department and previously caught writing fan letters about himself to then Chronicle columnist Armistead Maupin (a Toschi-like character featured in his original Tales of the City), was accused of forging the April 1978 letter himself, in order to revive interest in the case. The head of California's questioned documents department in Sacramento, Sherwood Morrill, used by the SFPD throughout the case, defended Toschi against the accusation.

As the case appeared to be dying off into obscurity in the mid-70s, Robert Graysmith set to work on it himself. He spent the next ten years, leaving the Chronicle in 1983, gathering literally a ton of evidence, re-interviewing witnesses, studying old reports and so on and so forth. His 1986 book, Zodiac, in which he revealed who he thought the Zodiac was, became a bestseller, though he didn't use the suspect's real name, In the follow-up, Zodiac Unmasked, he did reveal the true identity and apparently--I've not read that one--went into greater detail about his personal pursuit of the story. Reviews suggest that the greater detail only obscures the narrative drive and relative concision of the original, but Zodiac is itself a strangely structured book. Mr. Graysmith is necessarily present in various scenes, but keeps himself sufficiently in the background that he's a ghostly presence. Likewise, the need to present a controllable amount of information in this first effort--before anyone knew how it would sell--leads to a fair bit of jumping around and storylines being dropped or introduced precipitously. It's a fascinating story, but the telling is frustrating. David Fincher's film version draws upon both books, the filmmaker's own re-investigation of the case, and employs fictional devices and takes considerable liberty in order to present a coherent account of the case, character studies of the men whose lives were changed by it, and a reasonably compelling argument in favor of Robert Graysmith's preferred conclusion. The film is, to begin with, a visual wonder. It looks more like the 60s and 70s than anything you're likely to see anytime soon. In fact, the production values are so high, that it looks more like the period than the movies made during that time do. I just saw The Laughing Policeman [1973] and while it has the grit of reality down it also has that cheesy 70s feel that never lets you forget it's just a movie.

The casting in the film is also superb. Jake Gyllenhaal is appropriately squirrely as Robert Graysmith. Robert Downey Jr's initially cocky Paul Avery descends into cigarettes, drugs and alcohol. Brian Cox--coincidentally the original Hannibal Lecter on-screen--has a nice star turn as Belli. Anthony Edwards is an earnest and often frustrated Inspector William Armstrong. And Mark Ruffalo is a Toschi magnetic enough that you can understand him being the model for two movie archetypes, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry being the second, the first of that series heavily based on the Zodiac case. Finally, John Carroll Lynch is just unfamiliar enough and just frightening enough to make Arthur Leigh Allen a plausible candidate for the Zodiac. Smaller parts are filled ably by the likes of Elias Koteas, Sgt. Jack Mulanax of the Vallejo police, and Donal Logue, Captain Ken Narlow, from the Napa County Sheriff's Department.

While the movie opens with grueling re-enactments of the July 4th shooting, the Lake Berryessa stabbings, the taxi cab shooting, and an incident where a woman and her baby were abducted, perhaps by the Zodiac, but escaped, things soon settle down into the investigation phase and there are only a couple more scary scenes until the end. The tension in the film comes less from the physical danger presented by the killer than by the psychological and emotional danger that accompanied tracking him. If two things seem particularly ill-suited to the medium of the movies, they are the task of writing and the drudgery of a real-life investigation. David Fincher turns both into compelling drama. One of the real curiosities attending the film are reviews that praise him for the unique glimpse that the movie provides of both, but then complain that he follows the case down the dead-ends that reporters and cops did. Huh? It is because the viewer feels so deflated after the various leads end up not panning out that we get some sense of the toll the unsolved mystery exacted. That is risky story-telling, but it is quite brilliantly done. In the end, so comprehensible has the obsession been rendered that even as Graysmith's behavior tips over into the frantic and we watch him alienate friends and lose his family, we can't imagine him quitting before he answers the mystery to at least his own satisfaction. We are become almost participants in the mania, no longer mere observers.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

    -MOVIE SITE: Zodiac
    -FILM INFO: Zodiac (2007) (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: David Fincher: 28 August 1962, Denver, CO (IMDB)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Oeuvre: Fincher: Zodiac (Peter Tabakis, 4/12/24, Spectrum Culture)
    -ESSAY: Not Many People Have Basements in California ...: Robert Graysmith visiting the home of Bob Vaughn in ‘Zodiac’ is David Fincher’s most purely terrifying scene. Here’s how it came together—and came to stay in the movie. (Jake Kring-Schreifels, Sep 24, 2020, the Ringer)
    -ESSAY: THE HUNTER, THE HUNTED, AND “THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME": A political thriller author and former SEAL Team member reflects on the warrior's life and a classic short story. (JACK CARR, 4/23/20, Crime Reads)
    -PROFILE: Lights, Bogeyman, Action (DAVID M. HALBFINGER, February 18, 2007, NY Times)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Zodiac (Metacritic)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (MANOHLA DARGIS, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (Jeffrey Overstreet, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (William Arnold, Seattle PI)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (Scott Foundas, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (Dana Stevens, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (David Denby, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (David Edelstein, New York)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (Christopher Orr, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (Kevin Crust, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (Stephen Hunter, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (James Berardinelli)
    -REVIEW: of Zodiac (Robert Hanks, Independent) ZODIAC CASE:

    -ARCHIVES: The Zodiac Killer (SFGate Staff)
    -Zodiac Movie vs. Zodiac Killer (Chasing the Frog)
    -Zodiac Killer (Wikipedia)
    -Zodiac Cypher Webtoy (Oranchak)
    -ESSAY: The Zodiac Killer (Jake Wark, TruTV)
    -Zodiac Killer Facts
    -OBITUARY: Paul Avery, Longtime Newspaper Reporter (Michael Taylor, December 13, 2000, SF Chronicle)
Perhaps the most intense story of Mr. Avery's career was the Zodiac case, a series of killings -- unsolved to this day -- that began in October 1966 and ostensibly ended with the death of a San Francisco cab driver in October 1969. At the time, Mr. Avery was a police reporter at The Chronicle.

The Zodiac became infamous because of the letters, riddled with cryptograms, that he would send to Bay Area newspapers. For a long time, it was thought that the Zodiac's activities were limited to the Bay Area, but Mr. Avery discovered a 1966 murder in Riverside that he linked to the Zodiac.

The Zodiac soon wrote Mr. Avery a letter, warning, "You are doomed." Just as quickly, someone made up hundreds of campaign-style buttons, worn by nearly everyone on The Chronicle staff, including Mr. Avery, that said, "I Am Not Paul Avery."

    -ARTICLE: Zodiac Serial Killer Found?; The Sun (David Lowe, 9/03/08, The Sun)
    -ARTICLE: DNA seems to clear only Zodiac suspect: New-found evidence may allow genetic profile of '60s killer (Mike Weiss, October 15, 2002, SF Chronicle)
    -ARTICLE: Zodiac's written clues fascinate document expert (Lance Williams, March 3, 2007, SF Chronicle)