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By Ryan Thomas

On Tuesday, June 25, IPH’s The Critic’s Eye series features a film about obsession, made by Hollywood’s most obsessive filmmaker. The disclaimer for David Fincher’s Zodiac doesn’t tell us it’s inspired by a true story or taken from real events. It’s a movie based on actual events and records — police reports, eyewitness testimony, ciphers, handwriting, fingerprints. Fincher spent upward of two years researching the film alongside screenwriter James Vanderbilt. It’s possible that at the time of production, no one knew more about the Zodiac Killer than he did.

Investigator Ken Narlow was present for a location scout at Napa County’s Lake Berryessa, the site of a 1969 Zodiac stabbing. He led the crew to a small hill near the water. This is where the actual attack took place, he told them. Fincher took a look around, put a hand in the dirt, listened to the traffic overhead. I think it was actually over there, he said, and led the crew to another hill some distance away. Narlow realized he was right.

Journalistic, even forensic, accuracy is what allows Zodiac to take shape. It uses actual names, actual events, period-accurate songs, films and shows. Most of its 157 minutes are made up of people talking in rooms. It’s a newspaper movie, a movie about asking and interviewing, researching and remembering, double-checking and doubling back.

Which doesn’t exactly account for Zodiac’s compulsive rewatchability. I know people who’ve seen it five or 10 or 50 times. It’s a film about senseless real-life violence that leaves room for multiple career-best performances (Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.), a note-perfect ’70s soundtrack (and David Shire score), a coldly beautiful digitally-shot color palette and more than one joke about animal crackers. Others are more celebrated, but no serial killer movie has inspired more close watching (or comfort viewing).

Fincher resists the idea of one-man moviemaking, but his personal connection to the material is clear. He was a San Francisco elementary schooler during the Zodiac’s reign; he remembers his dad telling him about threats to school buses and second graders and wondering years later, as he left the Bay Area in his family’s moving van, “Did they ever catch that Zodiac guy?” Fincher and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) both lost something to the Zodiac — not their lives but maybe their innocence, a sense of order, virtue, cleanliness, resolution. The idea that things would turn out fine.


One of Zodiac’s final scenes has Graysmith/Fincher show detective David Toschi (Ruffalo) exactly how close a suspect lived to a Zodiac victim. He argues, in a run-down diner well past midnight, that the two were proximate beyond chance, beyond coincidence, beyond reasonable doubt. Just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

[She] worked at the Vallejo House of Pancakes on the corner of Tennessee and Carroll,” Graysmith says. “[He] lived in his mother’s basement on Fresno Street…Door to door, that is less than 50 yards.”

“Is that true?” Toschi asks.

“I’ve walked it.”

He probably did.


Ryan Thomas is a writer and filmmaker based in Charlotte.
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