‘Zodiac’ is not about the Zodiac killer. Misleading title? Not really. The Zodiac killer serves as an (admittedly intriguing) plot device for the exploration of obsession: how it manifests itself, why it takes hold, in what way it affects those under its spell; as the film’s tagline ruminates, 'There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer'.
The plot follows various characters, but only two are consistent in their appearance. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the author of the book the film is based upon, is a naïve, gentle cartoonist whose past-time love of codes blossoms into an obsession vis-à-vis the Zodiac’s cryptic letters. David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is a determined, intelligent detective who, to his own detriment, becomes synonymous with the Zodiac case.
Gyllenhaal, though increasingly pigeon-holed as the sensitive, socially-awkward intellectual, plays it well; Graysmith will never be a character you will love, but he is not meant to be. Instead he acts as the eyes and ears of the audience, considering the puzzle, sharing the obsession, tensing in fear. A character you may love is newspaper-compatriot, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). A star reporter singled out by the Zodiac for his rather vociferous opinions, Avery is at the same time hilarious and depressing, enlightening and baffling, and as would be expected of Downey Jr., he plays the role with custom aplomb and vivacity.
Ruffalo provides another sterling performance as Inspector Toschi, sliding back and forth between the iconoclasm of Dirty Harry (which the real-life Toschi inspired, fittingly alluded to in the film) and tragic inevitability of Serpico; one feels that, given a premise less confined by red-tape reality, Toschi’s character would be a justice-dispensing hero. But not in this film, grounded so neatly in the history of the Zodiac case, and fittingly so, for what one loses in cheap cheers and thrills for good overcoming evil, one gains in aporia and epiphany, understanding Toschi’s innumerable frustrations before sharing in delight as mysteries are revealed.
Fincher helms the production with a masterful eye for pace and detail. Though ostentatious as always, in this film Fincher finally blends his love of eye-grabbing shots with a need to serve the story, and this merging pays-off in the creation of an absorbing, nostalgic atmosphere that makes the telling of the story like reminiscing with an old friend. You feel comfortable and familiar with the scenario, yet you are full of questions and crave the answers.
Such is the nature of the film. Questions are thrown at the audience for almost three hours; the answers are sometimes elusive, and never truly conclusive. Much like the characters, we are left to assess the evidence, trust our instincts, and make our own conclusions without real confirmation. It is this lack of authentication that drives the mystery of the Zodiac, much as it does with England’s own Jack the Ripper, and it is this lack of verification that drives the characters’ obsession and, before you realise it, your own.