Revisiting Zodiac – David Fincher’s Riveting Take on the Infamous Unsolved Murders

Zodiac is a semi-fictional account of the serial murders in the San Francisco area in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s. Unless you’ve read the book by Robert Graysmith that the film is based on, I would imagine it’s hard to tell the fact from the fiction in the film. That could have been a big problem had the film been helmed by a lesser film maker. Directed by David Fincher, however, it actually works in favor of the film. As you remember, Fincher is the director that gave us Se7en as well as The Game and Panic Room. What that means is that he’s honed his craft and is a master at building and keeping suspense during even the most mundane of moments. Fincher is also very gifted when it comes to getting great performances out of his cast. Mark Ruffalo is a prime example. I’ve always liked him as an actor, but I also always felt that he was holding back in the roles he took on. In Zodiac we get the performance from Ruffalo that I always knew he was capable of delivering. Another example is Jake Gyllenhaal. Here in the role of San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist and eventual Zodiac author Robert Graysmith, Gyllenhaal is cast as the film’s Boy Scout, a name he is even called a few times in the film. He is every man who refuses to give up, the one who continues to dig even at the cost of losing his family and possibly even his life.

A True Crime Saga Recreated

In 2007, acclaimed director David Fincher brought the terrifying true story of the Zodiac killer to the big screen in Zodiac, based on Robert Graysmith’s nonfiction book. This chilling film recreates the murders that gripped the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 60s and 70s, while following the obsessed investigators trying to crack the cryptic case.

The Zodiac murderer taunted police and public alike through ciphered letters claiming credit for slayings. While elements of the film take creative license, Zodiac largely adheres to known facts about the infamous string of killings that were never officially solved.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who becomes consumed with decoding the Zodiac’s twisted clues. Mark Ruffalo plays David Toschi, the tenacious lead inspector on the case. Robert Downey Jr. rounds out the core cast as reporter Paul Avery, who receives the killer’s ominous letters.

Through meticulous period details and gripping thriller sequences, Fincher immerses the audience in the paranoia surrounding the brutal, still-mysterious murders. Zodiac feels more like a documentary unfolding in real time than a stylized Hollywood retelling.

David Fincher’s Directorial Prowess

What truly elevates Zodiac is David Fincher’s confident direction. He maintains an undercurrent of dread through even mundane scenes, thanks to his masterful grasp of pace, tone, and suspense.

By restraining himself from sensationalizing the crimes, Fincher crafts an eerie ambience where even ordinary conversations and investigative dead-ends carry ominous weight. The subdued, grounded approach makes the terror feel more visceral when violence does erupt.

Fincher also deserves immense credit for drawing out career-best performances. The trio of leads each convey the growing obsession with the case in their own distinct ways. Ruffalo in particular simmers with a weary determination as Toschi.

An Impactful True Crime Exploration

Zodiac succeeds so masterfully because it focuses on the human impact of the infamous case rather than the killer alone. We feel the anguish of lives shattered, the public hysteria generated, and the years of grueling legwork by investigators left without closure.

The film raises thought-provoking questions about the nature of evil while avoiding easy answers. By the end, the audience is as haunted and perplexed as the characters by the elusive, faceless predator who wreaked havoc on so many lives.

Fourteen years later, Zodiac remains the definitive cinematic depiction of the notorious Zodiac slayings. David Fincher’s greatest triumph is maintaining the real-world terror and mystery surrounding one of America’s most infamous unsolved crimes. Other than the murder of the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, the Zodiac murders is one of the most famous unsolved crimes in the annals of American history. One wonders if the killer were to strike today would police be held as inept as they were nearly sixty years ago. Remember, police didn’t have DNA and all the other luxuries of technologies that they enjoy today. Times have changed, which is good. The bad part is that the evil that men do remains the same.


Lone Skye appears in this movie in an uncredited cameo. “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, by her father, Donovan, is used prominently in the soundtrack.

Philip Baker Hall had also previously starred in The Zodiac, another film adaptation of the Zodiac Killer. He played Frank Perkins.

Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery were not actually friends. Their relationship is fictionalized for the film.

Dave Toschi in real life was the inspiration for Steve McQueen‘s performance in Bullitt. In the film, Graysmith mentions that Toschi wears his gun like Bullitt. Avery replies that Bullitt got it from Toschi.