Original release: March 2nd, 2007
Running time: 157 minutes
Director: David Fincher
Writers: James Vanderbilt, Robert Graysmith
Composer: David Shire
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr.
August 1st, 1969 00:14:49 to 00:16:42
What is it about serial killers that fascinates us and yet repels us at the same time? Is it the thought that another human being could be so devoid of empathy that they could murder another? That murder, the most heinous of crimes, could be repeated again and again by the perpetrator as they mount their way into infamy?
I’m not quite sure when my own fascination with them started, but it was probably due to watching countless horror movies as a kid and then discovering there really were murderers out there in the world (and even in my hometown!). As a teenager I remember reading about Ed Gein, Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy and Gary Ridgway and going to bed trembling at the thought that these were people who had families, had gone to school, had worked at jobs…and yet no one knew.
Some time later I recall the feeling of nausea rising within me as the news of Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes broke. And yet serial killers continued to surprise me; Coral Eugene Watts and Aileen Wuornos destroyed the commonly held misconception that serial killers were always white males, but some time in the mid-90s I stumbled across one killer whose modus operandi remains baffling even today.
Out of the many serial killers I learned about during the years when I dreamed about becoming a criminologist or profiler, it was the Zodiac killer who kept me up the longest. His victims were seemingly random, and like Jack the Ripper 80 years before him, his letters contained information only the killer (or someone connected to the investigation) would know. But in his letters there was something more; they consisted of lined ciphers that, if cracked, would reveal his identity. One of these decoded ciphers, dated July 31, 1969, reads,
You might wonder if the last word is a typing error, but that’s exactly the way it appears in the cipher and it’s believed to be an anagram that, when decoded, reveals the killer’s identity. It has never been successfully decoded, along with some of the Zodiac’s other letters.
While this letter gives us some insight into the mind of the Zodiac killer, it really didn’t help the press, the FBI, NSA, and CIA or independent researchers in the decades that followed to unravel the mystery of his identity and it’s this quest which serves as the main bulk of David Fincher’s 2007 film, Zodiac.
The film picks up on July 4th, 1969, with the Zodiac’s second attack, the shooting of Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes) and Mike Mageau (Lee Norris) at a lovers’ lane in Vallejo, California. From there it moves to August 1st when three letters were mailed to Vallejo Times Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The San Francisco Examiner. In the letters the writer takes credit for the shootings at Lake Herman Road and Blue Rock Springs and he includes one-third of a 408-symbol cryptogram within which he’s hidden his identity. At the San Francisco Chronicle we meet Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) a political cartoonist. As Graysmith’s editors and colleagues, including Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), become embroiled in the story and investigation, he begins to take an interest despite no one taking him seriously. Their attitude however soon changes when Graysmith manages to crack one of the codes and makes several correct guesses about the killer’s actions.
This happens very early on in the film and it’s a scene that plays out so subtly that it’s easy to miss, but it’s here we see Graysmith applying an analytical and methodical approach to decryption that might’ve served him better as a criminal profiler than as a cartoonist. It’s when Avery shows him that first letter that his life takes a turn that otherwise might’ve gone differently. Graysmith would go on to obsessively pursue the Zodiac killer in his own investigation and it would cost him his marriage, but his suspicion would fall on Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) based on circumstantial evidence, such as the same brand of typewriter used for type the letters being found in his residence, that he owned a Zodiac brand wristwatch and was a local in Vallejo. There are even more reasons to tie Allen to the Zodiac’s killing spree. In his 1986 book, Zodiac, Graysmith mentioned that in 1963 Allen had lost his job as a teacher at Travis AFB in Fairfield because of child molesting.
The problem with Allen being the Zodiac killer is the fact that his DNA never matched those found on the letters. Though the film is quite a long one, the way it goes about describing these events, as far as Graysmith recalls them, is compelling as it forces us to ask the same question at the end as we did when the film first started –who was the Zodiac killer?
It’s a question that’s still unanswered and the case remains open n the city of Vallejo, as well as in Napa County and Solano County with the California Department of Justice keeping open case file on the Zodiac murders since 1969.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .