Zodiac (2007) is the David Fincher docudrama that depicts events surrounding the case of the Zodiac Killer. Although other, smaller-scale, movies have covered the subject of the San Francisco Bay Area serial killer — e.g. The Zodiac Killer (1971), The Zodiac (2005) — and the story has inspired another Hollywood blockbuster — Dirty Harry (1972) — this film was the first and last high-budget Hollywood production specifically about the Zodiac.
First-class Hollywood production coupled with an inherently interesting storyline (through the first half of the movie) combine to counterbalance a film that’s too long and looses itself while attempting to convince the audience that Arthur Leigh Allen was the movie’s namesake serial murderer.
|Jake Gyllenhaal||Robert Graysmith|
|Robert Downey Jr.||Paul Avery|
|Mark Ruffalo||SFPD Inspector David Toschi|
|Anthony Edwards||SFPD Inspector Bill Armstrong|
With the screenplay primarily based on Robert Graysmith’s bestselling (but flawed) book, Zodiac (1986), the movie Zodiac (2007) tells the story of the America’s most notorious never-apprehended serial killer through the interactions of three key characters: San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith, Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, and San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) Homicide Inspector David Toschi.
The movie consists of three distinct parts. The first conveys most of the important events in the case of the Zodiac. In an interesting bit of movie-making liberty, the film skips the first definite attack and opens with a depiction of the second, i.e. the shooting at Blue Rock Springs where the killer murdered Darlene Ferrin and gravely injured Michael Mageau. This section’s straight-forward storytelling, embellished with an array of screenwriting devices intended to introduce facts while keeping the story moving forward, continues through the remainder of the killer’s crimes, much of his letter writing, and other side stories such as Melvin Belli’s appearance on the Jim Dunbar show.
The first and most interesting part of the movie leads into the shortest of the three segments where the screenwriter, James Vanderbilt, develops Arthur Leigh Allen as a character and suspect. We, the audience, witness Allen come to the attention of SFPD through the accusations of one of his friends, Don Cheney. Their subsequent interview with the slightly-off, Zodiac-watch wearing person-of-interest includes Allen making the seemingly taunting non-denial denial: “I’m not the Zodiac. And if I was, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.” Eventually, a lack of direct evidence forces Toschi and his partner Armstrong down a path of inaction.
The final segment of the movie focuses on Graysmith’s “investigation” (for lack of a better word), his eventual revelation that Allen is the Zodiac (by the way, have I mentioned that Allen almost certainly was not the Zodiac), and the publication of his book. In the end, the audience is told that Allen must be the Zodiac because the killer supposedly said something to Melvin Belli’s housekeeper that implied his birthday was December 18th, which happens to be Allen’s birthday.
The epilogue explains that Arthur Leigh Allen, despite being dead, remains the prime and only suspect in several jurisdictions where the investigation remains open (as of 2007).
Reception and Performance
Based on the strength of Fincher’s directing, Vanderbilt’s writing, and the impressive ensemble of acting talent, critics and audiences alike agreed that Zodiac (2007) was a particularly good movie. It has a 7.7 rating at the IMDB and an 89% Certified Fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes. On the review front, both the late Roger Ebert and the New York Times gave the film an impressively complimentary review at the time of its release. Some critics decried the film’s length or its unsatisfying resolution (unfortunately, reality was uncooperative on this latter point). But, most saw the movie for what it was: a work of art created by some of Hollywood’s best talents.
From a financial perspective, the movie did reasonably well, pulling in a worldwide box-office gross of $83 million. However, when considered against the backdrop of its substantial budget, $85 million, and the relative success of other Fincher works, the movie is a disappointment. The following image (from this website) shows how well several of Fincher’s films performed in terms of domestic box office. As is evident from the chart, Zodiac (2007) stayed in theaters the shortest period of time and earned the least of the six films (albeit it was just below Fight Club).
Although Zodiac (2007) was nominated for several lesser-known awards and won a couple them, it failed to garner any Oscar or Golden-Globe nominations.
There is much to like about Zodiac (2007). Fincher’s directing is top notch. Vanderbilt’s writing is compelling, especially through the first half of the film. The movie boasts not one, not two, but three mega stars in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr. Unsurprisingly, the acting is exceptionally well done.
From my admittedly biased perspective, however, the single most significant accomplishment of Zodiac (2007) has less to do with the technicalities of movie making and more to do with the case itself. Prior to the release of Zodiac (2007), the Zodiac Killer was not universally well known. People familiar with true crime knew of it. Of course, the millions who had read Graysmith’s books — he also wrote Zodiac Unmasked (2002) — were aware of it. Residents of the West Coast generally knew something about the story. Yet, there were large segments of the population who had never even heard of the case.
All of that changed with the release of Zodiac (2007). Now, nearly all the people I talk to have either seen the movie or, at least, are aware of the case by virtue of knowing about the movie. This increased level of exposure has generated a large amount of additional interest in the mystery. Ultimately, this exposure is a good thing in terms of increasing the likelihood that the case will eventually be solved. Perhaps it’s not too much to hope that this additional interest has sown the seeds that will one day bear the fruits of resolution.
The final highlight I’ll note may seem minor, but I’ve always felt that the tagline for the movie is exceptionally good:
There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.
For many people, the case of the Zodiac Killer has been a destructive force. It consumes much in the way of opportunity costs and yields next to nothing in terms of definitive answers. People have unwittingly destroyed their lives trying to solve the mystery of the killer’s identity. People have done irreparable harm to the relationships in their lives trying to solve the killer’s ciphers. As a somewhat humorous manifestation of this dynamic, Robert Graysmith, upon reading the screenplay for Zodiac (2007), reportedly said: “God, now I see why my wife divorced me.” As someone who has questioned his interest in this case on more than one occasion, I appreciate the tag line.
Undeniably, there are a few problems with Zodiac (2007). The first such problem is its emphasis on Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen was a good suspect in 1986, at the time when Graysmith’s book was published. But, in 2007, he was considerably less of a good suspect. As is partially dealt with in the movie, Allen has been disqualified on the basis of handwriting, fingerprints, palm prints, and a nuclear DNA comparison against a partial profile developed from one of the killer’s authenticated letters. Some people refuse to accept this evidence for one reason or another, but it’s highly unlikely that Allen was the Zodiac.
At two hours and forty-two minutes, the next issue with Zodiac (2007) is simply its length. The story has some inherent difficulties that must be overcome during its telling, e.g. there is a lot of information, it lacks a satisfying conclusion, etc. Allowing certain parts of the story to needlessly drag on amounts to taking a bad situation and making it worse.
Toward the end of the movie, Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), tries to dissuade Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) from continuing his involvement by saying:
Too much time has gone by. Too much evidence gets lost. People get old. They forget.
When this was being said, I remember having two simultaneous thoughts. First, the timing doesn’t make sense since, at this point in the story, it’s only been a small number of years since the last authenticated communication from the killer. Second, the words felt authentic, with respect to the movie itself, because so much time had passed since its most compelling part. This latter thought was evidence that the movie was overshooting its optimal duration.
Of course, these two problems could have fixed each other. If Vanderbilt had removed the emphasis on Allen and gotten rid of Graysmith’s “investigation,” the result would have been a tighter film that, in my view, would have been more enjoyable. Admittedly, doing so would have made the movie have considerably less to do with Graysmith’s book, probably to the point that many would have questioned whether it made sense to tell the story from Graysmith’s perspective. Also, I’m sure there was a desire to have something in the way of a conclusion, since Hollywood likes to wrap things up into nice, well-defined packages. But, whatever resolution the movie currently provides is an illusion anyway; so, I don’t perceive it as adding a lot of value.
With respect to the case itself, I find the omission of the Lake Herman Road murders — the Zodiac’s first attack that claimed the lives of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen — uncomfortable. There are five people whom the killer definitely murdered. Leaving out two of them feels wrong. The bonus material from the Director’s Cut of Zodiac explains that Vanderbilt made the decision to omit the attack after careful consideration, choosing to do so because there were no witnesses to the events and therefore he could not be sure that he was faithfully reproducing it. I find this argument weak and unconvincing. From a victim perspective, I feel their part of the story deserved to be told.
Speaking of faithful reproduction, Fincher’s determination to accurately represent several aspects of the Zodiac story has been widely recognized. People often point out how he arranged to have trees helicoptered in to the Lake Berryessa crime scene in order to make area look as it did in 1969. Elsewhere, he’s explained how he cast different actors to play the role of the mysterious killer in different scenes so that the each actor matched the inconsistent physical descriptions given by the relevant eyewitnesses. In these and similar ways, it’s clear the director went to great lengths in order to ensure the accuracy of the storytelling.
Of course, the overall question of accuracy is not so simplistic. Zodiac (2007) is, first and foremost, a creative endeavor whose intention is to entertain. Achieving accuracy at the expense of fundamental movie-making requirements could, in the extreme, sacrifice the viability of the film. Hence, what we see again and again in the movie is a compromise in accuracy made in the interest of dramatization that moves the story along. One of the larger examples of this phenomenon is the substantive relationship between Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery. In reality, no such relationship existed. In the movie, it’s an important device used to develop the action.
Perhaps the most questionable inaccuracy in the movie is the scene in which Paul Avery receives a greeting card from the killer with a bloody swatch of victim Paul Stine’s shirt. In truth, the card contained no such swatch. Interestingly, Fincher addresses this application of artistic license in the commentary to the Director’s Cut of Zodiac, where he says:
The card was a necessary function of having to get Avery to a place … where Avery got a gun. In reality the bloody shirt arrived in another letter that was sent to the Chronicle. But, we needed to kickstart this idea that, we needed to make it positive for the audience and absolutely unequivocal that he had been communicated with by the Zodiac. And so again, a little bit of dramatic license.
Another liberty that was clearly taken to simplify the telling of the story was having the killer’s second letter arrive at the Chronicle. In reality, the Zodiac sent that letter to the city’s other primary newspaper, the Examiner. Since the latter newspaper was not represented in the film, it was a forgivable tweak to allow the brief mention of the letter to happen at the Chronicle.
To be sure, people who are familiar with the case of the Zodiac can, relatively easily, find points to nitpick. For example, during the attack at Blue Rock Springs, Michael Mageau was able to exit Darlene Ferrin’s car and fall onto the ground in time to see the killer drive away; he was even able to determine that the car had a California license plate . These facts are inconsistent with the scene from the movie. Yet, in a higher-level sense, this type of minor problem matters little and detracts even less from the value that the movie provides, in terms of both entertaining and informing.
In the final analysis, I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Zodiac (2007) is accurate enough in the ways that matter the most.
One of the problems with historical dramatizations is that we — who live in the future — have a tendency to allow our knowledge of what eventually happened to creep into our stories in ways that are not representative of the events that we’re portraying. Often this is done consciously, sometimes as part of a subtle communication to the audience; at other times it happens subconsciously.
While there are multiple instances of this phenomenon present in Zodiac (2007) — mostly of the conscious variety — one in particular rubs me the wrong way: the presence of what I refer to as the Taking Credit theory. The essence of this theory is that the Zodiac Killer took credit, through his writing, for several crimes which he did not commit.
In the movie, this idea is advanced, almost as a point of undisputed fact, when a drunken Paul Avery explains to Robert Graysmith that everything the killer needed to write about his alleged encounter with Kathleen Johns (the woman whom many people — myself included — believe he kidnapped for several hours), was published in a somewhat obscure Modesto Bee article  on the day following the ordeal1. This is a common argument that is made by many who advocate for the Taking Credit theory; however, it was not a common argument at the time Avery is making it in the movie.
Taking Credit usually embodies other contentions as well, including that the killer deceitfully took credit for: the murder of Cheri Jo Bates, the killing of San Francisco Police Officer Richard Radetich, and the disappearance and presumptive murder of Lake Tahoe nurse Donna Lass.
In my view, the Taking Credit theory generally receives much more attention that it deserves. Nevertheless, it is a real position held by numerous people familiar with the case. The larger problem I have with the inclusion of the Taking Credit theory in Zodiac (2007) is the idea of Paul Avery being its champion.
People who doubt Kathleen Johns’s involvement with the Zodiac often cite discrepancies in her account of events as recorded in the known police reports versus her later, more dramatic, descriptions — most notably in Graysmith’s 1986 book. But, long before the publication of Zodiac (1986), the world in general and the Bay Area in particular learned of the more dramatic version of Johns’s encounter thanks to the tenacity of Paul Avery. He tracked down Kathleen Johns and reported her story at the same time he was breaking the news of the probable Cheri Jo Bates connection .
Given the work that Paul Avery did to establish the linkage of two out of the four possible crimes which are cast into doubt by the Taking Credit theory, it just feels wrong for Vanderbilt to have made Avery the advocate for the line of speculation.
Zodiac (2007) is not a movie without flaws; it’s not perfect. Its emphasis on Robert Graysmith and its insistence that Arthur Leigh Allen was the never-identified serial killer leave something to be desired. But, as someone who has long been fascinated by this enduring mystery, I truly appreciate a legitimate Hollywood blockbuster specifically devoted to the subject. Add to these circumstances one of the industry’s most talented directors performing at the top of his game, three superstar actors who do an equally impressive job bringing the characters to life, and a good (albeit not great) screenplay, the result is a movie that’s hard not to like, imperfections and all.
Zodiac (2007) Trailer
1. The reliance of this argument on the relatively obscure Modesto Bee article has always seemed odd to me. The San Francisco Examiner published a similar story with equivalent information . It’s much more likely the killer would have seen this latter article.
 “Gunshot Victim Fails To Identify Attacker.” Vallejo Times Herald (July 7, 1969). 1.
 “Woman Says Zodiac Killer Captured Her.” The Modesto Bee (March 23, 1970). 1.
 “Rode With Zodiac, Woman Claims.” San Francisco Examiner (March 23, 1970). 4.
 Paul Avery. “New Evidence in Zodiac Killings.” San Francisco Chronicle (Nov. 16, 1970). 1.