D I A C
A late-1960's Serial
Killer Disappears Into The Fog of San Francisco's Days and Nights
The PopcornReel.com Movie Review: "Zodiac"
By Omar P.L. Moore/February 28, 2007 -- published March 2, 2007
Poster: Paramount Pictures
The following italicized excerpt from an actual murder confession is graphic and
may be offensive to some readers.
For the Zodiac killer and his reign of bloody terror, it all started in the
following fashion in Riverside in Southern California in 1966.
Or did it? :
"I grabbed her around the neck with my hand over her mouth
and my other hand with a small knife at her throat.
She went very willingly. Her breast felt very warm and
firm under my hands. But only one thing was on my mind.
Making her pay for the brush offs she that she had given me
during the years prior. She died hard. She squirmed
and shook as I choaked her, and her lips twiched. She
let out a scream once and I kicked her head to shut her up.
I plunged the knife into her and it broke. I then
finished the job by cutting her throat. I am not sick. I am insane.
But that will not stop the game. This letter should be
published for all to read it. It just might save that girl in the
alley. But that's up to you."
-- an excerpt from a
November 29, 1966 confession letter (confessing to the gruesome murder of Cheri
Jo Bates) from the Zodiac killer (?) sent to The Riverside Press Enterprise
newspaper in Riverside, California
True-life crime often pays, but it always
destroys and "Zodiac", David Fincher's first film in five years, shows just how
the effect of an elusive serial killer and his brazenness also has a
psychological hold and devastation on the three men who pursue him. In
1966 a man presumably began a murder spree in Riverside and continued to the
city of Vallejo in Northern California on July 4, 1969. On that night he
approached a couple, killing the woman and shooting the man, who survived.
He went on to kill couples in various other neighboring Northern California Bay
Area cities, then made a bigger name of notoriety for himself as his murderous
mayhem continued on into the city of San Francisco on October 11, 1969 with the
killing of a taxi driver in one of that city's most upscale neighborhoods,
Presidio Heights, at the intersection of Washington and Cherry Streets.
Along the way the killer taunted his police pursuers in Vallejo, Napa and San
Francisco with notes, riddles, cryptic codes and ciphers, some of which were
published in each city's most prominent newspapers.
And he was never caught.
"Zodiac" follows three very different men in their ambition to crack the case.
Sometimes the men get in each other's way in the process, but such is the need
and the pressure to solve the serial murders that the pressure overwhelms them,
most notably Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) a flamboyant writer at the San
Francisco Chronicle newspaper. Drugs and despair await him as he
becomes obsessed with taking matters into his own hands, and stepping into
Inspector Dave Toschi's jurisdiction as a homicide investigator. Mark
Ruffalo plays Toschi, and looks more like a youthful Peter Falk in his earlier "Columbo"
days, as he methodically goes from point-to-point with his partner Inspector
Bill Armstrong (played by Anthony Edwards) in an agonizing, frustrating and
fruitless journey to find the self-described "Zodiac" killer. Disgrace is
just around the corner for Toschi the seasoned cop, and danger lies close by for the
Chronicle's cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he later doggedly
hunts for clues. Of the three, he is the most relentless and persistent,
and has a strong sense (when everyone else doesn't) that the Zodiac killer is
"still out there." His wife (Chloe Sevigny) is not amused, but their kids
seem to be very game for this adventure. Where they were once cloaked in
fear, they are now very unafraid, and the unassuming Graysmith (who wrote the
books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked upon which "Zodiac" is based)
turns his own fears into a resolve and determination that impresses the
decorated detectives who have long since given up on the case and on a trail
that has long since grown cold.
Triangular trepidation: (top left and
right) Mark Ruffalo as Inspector Dave Toschi, Robert Downey, Jr. as San
Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery, and (immediately above this
caption) Jake Gyllenhaal as Chronicle cartoonist turned intrepid investigator
Robert Graysmith, in David Fincher's "Zodiac." Mr. Graysmith's two
true-crime books are the basis for the film, which was adapted from the books by
James Vanderbilt. Chloe Sevigny plays Melanie Graysmith, the wife of Mr.
Graysmith. (The three photos: Merrick Morton/Paramount Pictures)
"Zodiac" is not so much about the killer as it
is about how details get lost, twisted, misinterpreted and overlooked in the
search for that killer. Several times the police are closer to him than
they will ever realize, and after spending years of their lives embroiled in the
case they lose faith in it.
Mr. Fincher loses some of the trademark atmosphere of his prior work and relies
on the acting, drama and his direction to encapsulate the emotional turmoil of
the police and press. "Zodiac" an epic at two hours and 38 minutes, is
arguably his most "conventional" film. Interestingly, "Zodiac"
doesn't overtly hint at any political pressure to find the man involved, or much
at all to any kind of religious overtones, but all three of the film's central
investigators make hunting down the killer a religion unto itself. Even
the movie's poster (reproduced in part) above, with its foggy vortex sprawling
into a faint outline of a Saint Christopher cross, hints at the god-like grip
the killer has on San Francisco and its fog. A fog that swirled around the
city and its detectives, whose unit closed the case in April 2004, none the
closer to solving it. (Napa and Vallejo Police Departments still have the
One of the most impressive things about "Zodiac" is its thorough research and
detail. The dates, the days, weeks, months, and years are chronicled in
ritualistic fashion. After a few minutes the audience is lost in the days
and weeks -- we are lost, lost in the weeks and years of the lives of the men who
passionately work the clock-never-stop-for-a-breath-to-ensnare-the-killer lost.
We are ensnared.
We brace ourselves for suspense at several moments during the first half of
"Zodiac". Most of the time the payoff to the suspense -- which is not
entirely unpredictable -- works. We feel more of the heat and despair of
the would-be crime solvers than we do the tension and fear within the victims,
although there are one or two especially powerful and distressing moments in the
film's first half, one of which features a composite re-enactment of a real-life
incident. In this particular incident depicted by Mr. Fincher, violence
does not occur, but the power of suggestion is overwhelming. In real-life
however, a murder resulted.
"Zodiac" is a riveting psychological crime drama. It engages and entrances,
creating new levels of intrigue and fascination by the minute.
Exceptionally well-researched and meticulously crafted, its exhaustive detail
saturates the narrative like no other American motion picture in this new
century. Verbatim details recited from the killer's actual letters and
confessions (such as the one that began this review) are ever-present, as are
photographs of the real-life victims and police report information. Shots
in the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle evoke scenes of "All The
President's Men", which it resembles in its urgency and energy.
Murder, mystery, mystique and media circus: top
-- the killing in Vallejo on July 4, 1968; the letter from the Zodiac to the
Chronicle newspaper; Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, looks at a shadowy
figure; Brian Cox as attorney Melvin Belli, who is part of the media circus at
the Zodiac killer's behest. (All four photos: Merrick Morton/Paramount
In prior films like "Se7en" Mr. Fincher
excelled in part with nameless and faceless locations. The idea of a serial
killer obsessed centered anywhere and nowhere in particular added to the creepy
and scary atmospheric aspects of that 1995 film. With "Zodiac", for large
stretches of the first hour-plus, the anonymous qualities are evident even
in its primary setting of San Francisco, whose landmark Ferry Building and
Transamerica Pyramid are distinctive markers that both frame and belie an
ongoing murderous menace to society.
In fact, at least three different actors play the Zodiac killer, further adding
to the mystery and mystique of the killer and his identity.
The unknown quantity is the fact that despite Robert Graysmith's amazing 30
years of research, we do not conclusively know for a fact that the Zodiac killer
is who he is, or, that he is not in fact still out there, 40 years after the
first murder in Riverside. This contributes an element of Mr. Fincher's
"he could be anywhere and nowhere" feel from "Se7en". Fincher's film is
also fascinating because of its subject matter. Audiences have a morbid
fascination with serial killers, and whether it is fictional killers like
Hannibal Lecter or real-life killers like Jack The Ripper (chronicled in the
Hughes Brothers movie "From Hell") or the Hillside Strangler or New York City's
Son Of Sam killer David Berkowitz (dramatized in Spike Lee's "Summer Of Sam" in
1999), people (who have been fortunate not to be victimized by such horrific
crimes) follow their exploits with curiosity and fascination. This in part
may well have been also what motivated Mr. Graysmith to quit his job at the
Chronicle and go all out for much of his life in search of the truth about who
was behind the killings in the Bay Area in the late 1960's. Simply put,
the facts are confusing and confounding, and with red herrings galore, "Zodiac"
illustrates the complexities of such an astounding murder case in a highly
Beyond the realm of "Zodiac", the director is no stranger to San Francisco. His
1997 film "The Game" was filmed in part in the city's Chinatown and Financial
Districts as well as other parts of the city. Mr. Fincher is from Marin County,
which borders San Francisco but is separated from it by the Golden Gate Bridge,
which traverses the San Francisco Bay. Mr. Fincher was a young boy in 1969 when
he heard his father telling him about the Zodiac serial killer who taunted
police and threatened to shoot little kids as they exited a school bus, "picking
them off one by one." In an interview Mr. Fincher describes the Zodiac killer
as the "ultimate bogeyman" in the filmmaker's childhood days.
Mark Ruffalo as Inspector Dave Toschi and
Anthony Edwards as Inspector Bill Armstrong, in "Zodiac" which opens today in
the United States and Canada.
(Photos: Merrick Morton/Paramount Pictures)
"Zodiac" is said to be the first major Hollywood studio film shot entirely
without the aid of film or videotape. Shot entirely with the Thomson Viper
Camera, it is remarkable how much the typically striking effects of Viper's
digital capability are absent. Perhaps that's due to the director's frequent
cinematographer Harris Savides, who again creates a scene bathed primarily in
golden brown and faded green tones. Where other directors may have been tempted
to match their color palettes with the serial killer's bloody appetite, Mr.
Fincher allows the late-1960's Northern California washed-out and sun-jaded
visions to anchor the content and context of a story that only becomes clearer
and brighter during the film's final 20 minutes.
Instead of the pulse-pounding, overly dramatic "Seven" music score by Howard
Shore, the filmmaker employs a calmer score by David Shire. Additionally, the
classic sounds of late 1960's and early 1970's American music -- Donovan's
"Hurdy Gurdy Man", The Four Tops' "Bernadette", Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues
(Make Me Wanna Holler)", Santana's "Soul Sacrifice", Sly and The Family Stone's
"I Want To Take You Higher", Isaac Hayes' "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymystic"
and Three Dog Night's "Easy To Be Hard" permeate the film's soundtrack
recreating musical meditation as a counterpoint to a "calming" end to one
of the most tumultuous decades in modern American history. And the jazz
classics "Solar" (Miles Davis) and "Mary's Blues" (John Coltrane) are a welcome
The film's performances are just right, and Brian Cox is notable as attorney
Melvin Belli, who was called upon by the killer for counsel, as is Robert
Downey, Jr. as Paul Avery, and Anthony Edwards as Inspector Bill
Armstrong. Noteworthy is how Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney and Mr. Downey
-- actors whom have played characters with sinister undercurrents (Mr. Koteas in
particular) are cast here in "good guy" roles, adding another twist to the
minutiae of this complicated crime saga. Mr. Ruffalo, whose last San
Francisco foray on the big screen was in the comedy film "Just Like Heaven"
(2005) with Reese Witherspoon, sedates his normally more tense and harder-edged
work (i.e., as a detective in Michael Mann's 2004 film "Collateral") with an
internal smolder, likely as a match of the demeanor of the actual Inspector Toschi that Mr. Ruffalo plays here.
Photograph of the Lyon Street Steps in San
Francisco's tony Pacific Heights district. Presidio Heights, where the
Zodiac killer struck back in 1969, is literally a few blocks (a minute or two away)
from this location. (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore)
As mentioned earlier, the San Francisco Police Department closed its
investigative file on the Zodiac killer in April 2004. Did the San
Francisco Police Department's investigative team do all it could? They will say yes.
(Did any of the police departments in question do all that they possibly
could?) Within the city of San Francisco some locals view the SFPD with
skepticism -- that they somehow aren't aggressive enough when it comes to
fighting crime, or at least certain kinds of crime. (Among a few residents
the same is said of the San Francisco District Attorney's Office.) While
any type of perception can be stronger than what the reality suggests, the
reality is that in other neighboring San Francisco Bay Area cities the
investigations are being kept very much alive.
Fincher's riveting and fascinatingly-detailed true-crime epic does the same.
[Note: In New York City in late 1989, anonymously-penned letters started coming
in to the New York City Police Department entitled "this is the zodiac."
Apparently the very first letter warned that 12 murders would take place, one
for each astrology sign of the zodiac. From March 1990 to October 1993,
there were three murders and five others who were shot and severely wounded.
Letters with ciphers and cryptograms would be left by the bodies of the victims,
or not far away. On June 18, 1996, the perpetrator of these crimes,
Heriberto "Eddie" Seda, an apparent Zodiac "copycat", was caught. He wrote
a confession in much the same style as the California Zodiac killer, and
reportedly admired the California Zodiac killer for never being caught. In
1998 Mr. Seda was sentenced to 236 years in prison.]
"Zodiac" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for some
strong killings, language, drug material, and brief sexual images. The
film opens today, March 2 in North America and is released in the U.S. by
Paramount Pictures, with Warner Brothers distributing the film internationally.
The film's duration is two hours and 38 minutes.
Copyright The Popcorn Reel. PopcornReel.com. 2007. All Rights
A Conversation With Robert Graysmith, the
author of the books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, upon which David
Fincher's film was based.