How David Fincher Approached True Crime Without Exploitation in ‘Zodiac’
By Jerry Smith
By 2022, we’ve seen our fair share of true crime cinema. Between the countless Netflix documentaries, the makeup-murder YouTube video personalities, and quite literally every single thing under the burning sun, the true-crime plateau has been saturated to the point where you can’t turn the corner without someone talking about the most horrendous true crimes. The fact we’ve received exploitative films recreating crimes for the sake of entertainment (don’t get me started on those) and turning the pain that real-life victims and their families have suffered into a quick buck is something of a sad tragedy.
A proverbial diamond in the rough, David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac did what very few films of its kind are able to do: successfully tackle real-life horror. While it was a real-life horror that an entire state was terrorized by a serial killer, to this day, Zodiac is one of the most refreshing approaches to this example of real-life horror because it focused on the obsession to provide justice to its victims more than it focused on the horror the victims experienced.
What sets Zodiac apart from the countless other films of its kind is simple: it is a film completely devoted to tackling obsession more than exploitation. The film is essentially a look at three men hellbent on stopping a monster from terrorizing those living in fear. While a majority of other true crime adaptations focus on the killers themselves, often pretending they were people to sympathize with, Fincher’s film bypasses this focus to bring its viewers a factual account of what happened. In this case, the film focuses more on Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr), the three men committed, for better and for worse, to stop the man who calls himself Zodiac.
Though Fincher’s film does indeed recreate the crimes the murderer committed, and truth be told, those recreations are about as terrifying as possible, they’re only shown to highlight how much terror the man known as Zodiac was able to strike into the hearts of those around him. The moments are there to serve as a reminder that evil is real and sometimes it leaves a trail of pain and suffering.
Over the course of Zodiac’s running time, we’re given masterclass performances by Gyllenhaal, Downey, and Ruffalo, each actor embodying the trio who put everything on the line, something that would cost all three men their marriages, jobs, and many other painful life occurrences with all of them stemming from spending countless hours and days trying to bring closure to those who died at the hands of a monster. The film itself isn’t so much about the killings but about the obsession to do right by those affected. That obsession goes beyond the camera though. Fincher crazed himself during production, demanding upward of fifty takes for the simplest of shots, forever on a quest for perfection to bring audiences the best example of what obsession and determination can do.
While the lives of cartoonist Graysmith, detective Toschi, and detective Avery went through years of clues (and more downs than ups) each man’s obsession with solving the case and leaving no stone unturned serves as an example of knowing that at the end of the day our jobs are to do right by our fellow man. At the same time, when the stone-cold murderer displayed his own obsession with being acknowledged by leaving letters and clues as to some sort of game, the film shows that obsession can be both good and bad. The fine line between the two is examined in detail.
While other films trying to recapture what Zodiac did so well can often lead to an exploitative area (I’m looking at you, The Haunting of Sharon Tate), there’s an elegance and faithfulness to Fincher’s approach here so you never quite feel like you’re watching a series of horrific crimes but instead an in-depth examination of people on both sides of the case. Not only can crime bestow on us all but also the heartbreak that comes with knowing you’re out of your league and that your promises to bring closure are all you have left. Gyllenhaal is great as Graysmith, doing everything he can to show that he can help those around him while losing quite a bit in the process.
There’s something special about Zodiac, a rare film that never quite feels like it’s all about the horror, but instead, it’s about a quest to bring solace to those who have suffered from the horror. Zodiac always feels about five steps ahead of the game, a true masterpiece in execution, skill, and filmmaking when telling a compelling story filled with career-highlighted performances. Fincher has a knack for never giving up until each shot is perfect and presenting the people who devoted their lives to doing what’s right in an honorable and respectful way. It’s easy to resort to cheap scares and bad taste with true crime films like these, but Fincher’s true masterpiece will forever be the benchmark when it comes to bringing real-life events to the screen without leaving a bad taste in your mouth. Fincher’s Zodiac is a film forever the best of its kind and something to marvel at. 🩸
Jerry Smith is a film journalist and composer, hailing from the Central Valley of California. For over a decade now, he has annoyed readers of many sites and magazines with an overabundance of Halloween 4 love and personal essays. Follow him on Twitter @JerryisjustOK and visit his website Rainydaysforghosts.bandcamp.com.
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