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Jake Gylenhaal and Robert Downey Jr try to solve the puzzle.

“Zodiac,” based on an actual string of murders in San Francisco in the ‘60s, is not your typical serial-killer movie. This is important to know, because if you’re expecting the usual fare, with the evil genius, too little too late cops, and race against the clock in the final moments, you will absolutely hate this film. It’s really more JFK than Silence of the Lambs, more All the President’s Men than Seven. It’s more about the psychotic nature of obsessive investigation than the psychosis of murder.

In 1968, the Zodiac killer sent letters to newspapers around the San Francisco Bay area taking credit for a number of recent killings, and provided enough evidence to show he wasn’t a fake. He also required the papers to run an encrypted message, threatening to kill again if they didn’t comply. Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the goosip columnist and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhal) the cartoonist for the SF Chronicle, and both take an interest in the case, in spite of its complete irrelevance to their jobs. On the more relevant side are Inspector David Toschi (Mark Rufalo) and his partner Armstrong (Anthony Edwards,) who mostly inherit the case by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is our cast of characters, and it’s a colorful one. I don’t think Downey Jr. can help but be colorful and eccentric, and screenwriter James Vanderbilt clearly takes pleasure in filling out each characters’ idiosyncrasies, like Toschi’s perpetual jonesing for animal crackers and Armstrong’s curiosity about sushi (remember, this is the 60’s.)

The film is really about watching these men sort through the amazing mass of details, clues, tips, false leads, red herrings, inadmissable evidence, rumours, hearsay, and hunches as they try to track down the killer. We are never let into the killer’s mind, and we are never have the slightest clue which details matter and which don’t. (Here’s a helpful tip: don’t try to keep track of it all. That’s a short road to a headache, and most of it doesn’t matter.) Most of the scenes in which the killer does his thing are somehow both frightening and comic, and it’s here that you begin to understand he’s no evil genius. Then you see the cops try to organize the jurisdiction of crimes that take place in three counties, and fend off the reporters, and keep their wives and bosses happy and colleagues away from the bottle, and you begin to understand it really doesn’t take a genius to get away with these crimes. Just luck, really. Things really get loopy when the Zodiac starts taking credit for murders he clearly didn’t commit, and then, much like the characters, you never really know where you are.

The structure of Zodiac is unconventional, and as a result, it feels overly long. There’s no climax, and you’re supposed to feel exhausted and confused, like the characters, when the movie’s only half over. Several years go by with no new killings, and no new evidence coming to light, and the case grows moldy. Nobody cares anymore, except young Graysmith. This is when the movie shows its true colors; it’s not about serial murders, it’s about obsession with a puzzle no one’s been able to solve. Graysmith would’ve found a compatriot in “A Beautiful Mind’s” John Nash: he goes over and over the same facts, the same apparent dead ends, looking for patterns, possible connections, anything. Predictably, he drives his family away. Just as predictably, he figures out who the killer is. But be warned: the ending is a resolution to an obsession, not a climax to a crime investigation. It’s satisfying on that ground, and on no other.

Looking at “Zodiac” as a whole, it’s really a miracle that it holds together at all. You may find that you don’t think it does. But there are delightful scenes, engaging characters, an element of terror and tension, and some solid performances. What should be unruly and messy isn’t exactly tight, but it’s loose on purpose. Director David Finch comes to resemble a moviemaker like Robert Altman, able to unroll one scene after another like they’re coming off some eternal spool, and you don’t notice, or care much, that they’re not all that tightly connected.


  • if you like vivid characters, great dialogue, and Altman-esque plots;
  • if you followed the Zodiac case when it was actually happening
  • if you’re willing to go for a ride.

Not Recommended

  • if you’re looking for traditional crime drama, thriller, or serial killer fare
  • if you get headaches easily
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  1. Movie Blog: Top 10 Movies of 2007 « linked to this post on August 11, 2008

    […] Mention (the top 30) 11. Breach 12. This is England 13. Knocked Up 14. Deep Water 15. Zodiac 16. Sweeney Todd 17. Black Book 18. Into the Wild 19. No End in Sight 20. Atonement 21. Control 22. […]

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