To Catch a Predator

In his hunt for the Zodiac killer, David Fincher forgoes the personal for the process, and in the process Nathan Lee geeks out.

Compared with his colleagues in the serial killer pantheon, the Zodiac was something of an underachiever. His true forte was marketing, complete with a spiffy logo. "The thing that was so stunning about the Zodiac was not what he did but how he hyped it," says Fincher, reached by telephone on the set of his new movie in New Orleans. "The letters themselves are amazing graphic examples of that. They're riveting. They're the reason we're still talking about this guy, not the body count." Like Seven's John Doe, the Zodiac is in it for the publicity; the most intriguing detail of his story isn't what he did to his relatively few verifiable victims, but rather the likelihood that he claimed responsibility for murders he read about in the news. "What's the one thing we know about the Zodiac for sure?" asks a character at the end of the film. "That he reads the Chronicle."

This helps explain why Zodiac is less concerned with delving into the inner lives of its characters than observing their operative role in larger phenomena. Fincher denies the audience a strong, sympathetic hero. He's at least as interested in the yellow-on-gray color scheme of the Chronicle office as he is with the psychological shadings of his protagonists. "Fincher paints with people," Gyllenhaal recently griped to The New York Times. "It's tough to be a color." That doesn't mean that Zodiac is inhuman, only that it applies attention evenly across the whole canvas, the big picture; it's a panorama, not a portrait.

The most ingeniously designed narrative in many moons, Zodiac is structured in three parts without conforming to the conventional trajectory of a three-act narrative. The first section details the effect of the Zodiac on the media, filtered through the experience of Graysmith and Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a jaded reporter assigned to the story. Part one climaxes with the rupturing of the media's sense of its own inviolability: The Zodiac sends a letter, and a swatch of blood-soaked fabric, directly to Avery.

The Zodiac killer strikes again.
photo: Merrick Morton/Warner Bros Ent. and Paramount Pictures
The Zodiac killer strikes again.


Directed by David Fincher
Opens March 2, Paramount Pictures

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  • The middle part focuses on the police investigation, with a wealth of circumstantial evidence pointing to Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), a convicted child molester now employed at an oil refinery. Zodiac makes a convincing case for his guilt, though the mechanics of a whodunit are more important here than who, definitively, done it. If part one scrutinized media manipulation, part two delineates the limits of law enforcement, the lunge and parry of a police procedural destined to go unresolved. The section fades out at the 1971 premiere of Dirty Harry, a film incorporating the Zodiac mythos. "You're going to catch him," Graysmith says to Toschi in the lobby. "No," he replies in resignation. "They're already making movies about it."

    By the time we get to section three, the sheer volume of information has grown exhausting—which is very much the point. Zodiac ends with the story of Graysmith's continuing mania for the truth. It is only here, nearly two hours into the tale, that a recognizable human story enters the picture. Delaying that contact is one of Zodiac's shrewdest maneuvers; by the time we're dropped into Graysmith's drama, we're almost as overloaded with information as he is.

    Toschi remains only nominally involved in the case. Avery has retired to a houseboat and the bottle. Graysmith's persistence is pitched somewhere between the admirable and the unhinged. As ever, the Zodiac takes his toll. Mrs. Graysmith (Chlo Sevigny) leaves Robert to stew in an apartment heaped with "Zodiac crap"; from first date to breakup, the way she's sidelined from the story may seem a cliché of the genre, but it makes perfect, poignant sense in a movie with a deft sense of elision.

    In its final stretch, as it zeroes in on the processes of a single consciousness, Zodiac, that endlessly resonant glyph, functions as a movie about its own process. Graysmith's obsession is mirrored in Fincher's; the movie soldiers on, accumulating still more facts, unearthing new connections, pushing deeper into the labyrinth, chasing the ghost. The director's cut is going to be amazing—and intolerable.

    Zodiac exhausts more than one genre. Termite art par excellence, it burrows for the sake of burrowing, as fascinated by its own nooks and crannies as Inland Empire. While it mimics the look of 35mm film, it is appropriately, perhaps inevitably, a product of the high-def-video imagination. The movie operates with the back-and-forth insistence of a scanner arm, gathering, filtering, digitizing, and storing an immense catalog of analog enigmas. It might have been titled A Scanner Darkly.

    "The ending for me," says Fincher, "was always, At what point can you, personally, call it a day, Robert?" The film ends with the publication of Graysmith's book on the Zodiac, a final twist in the Arthur Leigh Allen theory, and a set of on-screen title cards that twist the theory yet again. As for Graysmith, the Zodiac lives on. Reached by phone from his home in San Francisco, the author mentions Shooting Zodiac, a book he's finishing about the production of Fincher's film.

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