There are many good films released around the world every year. Masterpiece celebrates the best of the very best: genuinely superb works of cinema that come with FictionMachine‘s very highest recommendation. If we had our own Criterion Collection, these are the films we would want it to include.
People will forever debate where the serial killer film first emerged as a key sub-genre of narrative cinema. Many claim it is Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M, whereas others might point to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926) or even Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). I think definitively identifying an origin is less important than appreciating how early into film culture these stories first emerged, and how long a history they have had. Stories of violent crime have a widespread, enduring appeal, and there is something about serial killers – the mixture of violence and horror – that pulls the audience’s strings in a particularly lurid and vicarious fashion.
The serial killer film received a key commercial boost in Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which was a zeitgeist-defining hit on release and which won a clean sweep of the “big five” at the 1992 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). A rush of derivative features followed, notably The Vanishing (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), Strange Days, and Copycat (both 1995). One of the most successful of these films was Seven (1995), an ultra-bleak and strikingly original work from writer Andrew Kevin Walker and director David Fincher.
12 years later Fincher revisited the serial killer film, this time with writer James Vanderbilt and with a real-life focus instead of a fictional one. Zodiac is based around the Zodiac Killer who killed at least five Californians between 1968 and 1969, and who was never identified or apprehended. It remains one of the most famous unsolved criminal cases in the USA, and at the time of Zodiac‘s theatrical release had already been adapted at least seven times in one way or another. Seven probably remains the most famous of Fincher’s two serial killer films, but despite the earlier films extensive merits Zodiac is the better film. I have come to believe it to be Fincher’s all-time best, indeed it seems likely that it is the best film about serial killings ever made.
What lifts Fincher’s film above its fellows is the way in which it takes its story structure from historical events. It is easy for a fictional thriller to present a neatly defined three-act structure, with an emotive climax and a satisfying conclusion. The Zodiac killings started with a string of seemingly random murders and gloating letters sent to a San Francisco newspaper, and then investigation simply began to drag on. No one was ever arrested for the Zodiac killings, and to this day the cases are still open in several police jurisdictions. It is hardly a gripping basis for a narrative film, but it precisely that timeline that makes Zodiac work so well. The film begins in 1968 and does not end until the early 1990s. It runs 157 minutes in total, and Fincher uses a variety of inventive techniques to demonstrate the passing of time from year to year. It is an exhausting experience, however that is clearly Fincher’s point. Like the killings, the film moves ever-on. It lingers and haunts. For the most part its story goes creepily unresolved.
That structure suits the film’s focus, which is ultimately not about the Zodiac Killer at all but rather the effect the murders have on the city. There is a rolling sense of menace that permeates throughout. The long timeline of events exhausts not just the viewer but the characters. Nominal protagonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) gradually becomes obsessed with identifying the killer. Of the two lead detectives investigating the case, one (Bill Armstrong, played by ER‘s Anthony Edwards) ultimately quits his job while the other (Dave Toschi, played by Mark Ruffalo) grows permanently affected by the unsolved nature of it all. Journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) burns out. The constant ambivalence and menace becomes overwhelming. In one key scene Graysmith interviews a film projectionist (an outstanding Charles Fleischer) about the case, and the paranoia ratchets up so tightly that a simple conversation becomes an emotional rollercoaster. The film has a uniformly great cast, with additional strong performances by the likes of John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Brian Cox, Dermot Mulroney, Jimmi Simpson, Clea Duvall, and Chloe Sevigny.
The film is peppered with remarkable uses of visual effects and CGI, all engineered to recreate the subtle changes to San Francisco over the course of three decades. The cinematography by Harry Savides is pitch-perfect, resembling all manner of slick late 1960s/early 1970s cinema. Depending on the scene you can see Scorsese, or Siegel, or Friedkin. It is an enormously cine-literate work.
Perhaps most commendably of all, Zodiac bucks a common trend of serial killer and ‘true crime’ movies and never feels exploitative. Its violence punctuates, but never feels disrespectful or garish. Its darkest moments are terrifying, but feel measured and well-earned. In a way the serial killings are a tool, not to titilate but to illustrate the dangers of obsession. It is not just hugely effective cinema, but responsible storytelling too. It really seems to be Fincher’s masterpiece.