Welcome to San Francisco Crime Month, where I’ve been reviewing SF based crime films. I started with the 1960s and moved all the way through to the 2000s for the final film, David Fincher’s 2007 thriller, Zodiac. Not only is this a great police procedural, but it also represents an infamous piece of San Francisco history.
The film follows three different people looking into the case of the Zodiac killer: a series of murders committed between 1968 and 1969. The killer sent coded letters to the press announcing his victims. The case is still open in some parts of California. The film has three protagonists: Paul Avery, played by Robert Downey Jr. is a reporter for the SF Chronicle; Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith a political cartoonist for the SF Chronicle with a penchant for solving puzzles; Mark Ruffalo plays Dave Toschi, a detective working the case. The film follows these three from the late 60s through to the late 70s as they each investigate the case through different methods. The film has a similar formula to Memories of Murder, and James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. It has three protagonists with different investigative styles, looking into a crime set in a specific location and time period.
The three leads are likeable and carry the viewer through the investigation. The characters change naturally as the Zodiac case tears away at them. Ruffalo is great with gruff detective roles, and this is no exception. He is the simplest character, but also the most relatable. Robert Downey Jr. is being himself when playing most roles, but it somehow works. He’s so charismatic that the character he plays is believable, almost as if Robert Downey Jr. really was a journalist. Gyllenhaal gets the most screentime, and is considered the primary protagonist. His role gets bigger as the film goes on, and he turns into the main investigator, instead of a background observer to Ruffalo and Downey.
Zodiac is two and a half hours long, but it goes by quickly. The film is long because it spans an entire decade, and delves deep into the investigation while still giving time for character development. A scene can end, and the next scene will take place a year later, or even decades later. It can be confusing at times, but is usually understandable. The middle of the film focuses completely on the investigation and goes through all the leads. The film then takes a break, and spends a lot of time with Gyllenhaal’s character; the rest of the film follows him on his investigation.
Zodiac follows the Se7en style formula for police procedurals, in that it follows the investigators and not the killers, but Fincher adds his own creative spin on it. Fincher will have scenes of the Zodiac killer murdering, or trying to murder someone, but he only shows the killings that left a witness. All the scenes with the killer are shown through the perspective of a survivor, and a different actor plays the Zodiac Killer each time. Fincher is able to recreate these moments without ever taking away from the actual events.
Fincher keeps the film as realistic and factual as possible, with the exception of one major detail: San Francisco does not look like San Francisco. The landscape is too flat and wide. I barely see any hillside streets or old victorians. The interiors are all period piece sets, while the outside shots primarily look like LA. I understand that SF should look like 1960s-1970s SF, but I just saw SF from that time period in Dirty Harry, and Bullitt. For a film that accurately portrays a major piece of SF history, it does not accurately represent SF. This is only a minor nitpick considering how good the film is, but it’s still disappointing.
Zodiac is a great police procedural that also works as a history lesson. The story is engaging, the characters are interesting, and the soundtrack is classic. This is one of David Fincher’s best films, and the one I have heard the least about. It’s a great film to end SF crime month on, and a great piece of Bay Area history.
Favorite Scene: The scenes that recreate the murders committed by the killer, only because of how ingeniously they are presented.
Next Time: For the final month I will showcase some amazing crime films that deserve more recognition.
Written by Tyler Ducheneaux
Images from Zodiac