A couple of years ago, browsing in the film books section in Waterstone’s, I came across a book called ‘Dark Eye: The Essential David Fincher’. There was a picture of Jodie Foster in ‘Panic Room’ on the cover. I realised with a jolt that ‘Panic Room’ had been released in 2002; Fincher hadn’t made a film since then.
Leaving aside the question of whether a film-maker who, then, had only five films to his credit, yet merited a full-length critical study, I hoped that Fincher wasn't going to pull a Terence Malick-style disappearing act. Particularly since that slim filmography, as much as it contains two masterpieces (‘Seven’ and ‘Fight Club’), is also beset by one fucked-up-by-the-studio curate's egg (‘Alien 3’), one disappointing miss-fire (‘The Game’), and one stylish-but-by-the-numbers commercial venture (‘Panic Room’). There was the sense that Fincher's career could still go either way.
Then came ‘Zodiac’, part psychodrama, part police procedural, investigating the still ostensibly unsolved series of murders that shocked San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s, and provided the inspiration for ‘Dirty Harry’. Don Siegel’s iconic classic gets a cameo role, investigating detective Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, in what deserves to be a star-making performance) walking out of a screening, ired at Callahan's non-observance of due process.
This scene is integral: ‘Dirty Harry’ is the myth (maverick cop blows away the killer at the end); Zodiac considers the reality - the real cost. The tag-line on the poster - "there’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer" – says it all. Although Toschi is closest to the case, and takes it personally when he can’t get enough evidence against the main (indeed, only) suspect, it's two newspapermen who become obsessed by the nameless killer who taunts police and media alike with a series of coded messages.
Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jnr) is a louche and a drunkard who steamrollers towards conflict with colleagues and editor alike. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a teetotal, clean-living nice guy - a cartoonist - who is gently mocked by his colleagues for his lack of vices. Then the case gets under his skin and his life takes a darker turn. The interplay between the three gives the films its dynamic. The recreations of the murders, veering between almost absurdly comedic and truly terrifying, give it its darkness.
Overall, Fincher directs with restraint, his usual visual flair taking a backseat in favour of attention to period detail and his coaxing of great performances from his cast (Brian Cox, Elias Coteas and John Carroll Lynch shine in supporting roles). This said, there is one typically Fincher moment, typed excerpts from the Zodiac’s letters floating through a montage of day-to-day life at the newspaper office.
And while the killer was never brought to justice, Fincher (adapting Graysmith’s non-fiction book of the same title) is confident in pointing the finger. You're left in no doubt that Graysmith and Toschi knew who their man was, too. But even if the Zodiac’s identity were still a gaping void, a complete enigma, the film would be no less powerful: it's the sense of denied closure that clings to you as the end credits roll that provides the film’s final chill.