When Annemarie and I decided to sort out our personal Top 25 favorite movie lists, Zodiac landed at the top of mine. It makes sense that this obsessive, detail-oriented, exhaustive analysis of the Zodiac killer’s rise to infamy would tickle my cinematic fancy. And I think that after all this time, Annemarie will be able to tell us quite precisely why. Before I start to drag us into the weeds, I want to hear your take on all the classic questions, AM. Why did I pick this movie? What was your reaction to it? Were you as frightened as you were concerned you would be?
AM: First of all, there’s Jake Gyllenhaal. If for no other reason, that’s why I knew why you’d love this movie. Plus, it’s a journalist-centric movie, which I also know you’re a particular fan of, as am I. Then you’ve got the true crime Zodiac story, which is a mysterious tragedy in which people lost their lives and it’s frustratingly unsolved. No one to throw in jail and toss the key. I know there’s a My Favorite Murder place in your heart, so obviously the subject matter is on target here.
Since I also like true crime, have a tolerance for thrillers but no stomach for gore, I wasn’t sure if I would like this film. I honestly didn’t know much about the Zodiac killer before seeing this movie, and I definitely want to hear more about it, so I’d say it won me over. I definitely covered my eyes when there was a knife present, but overall it wasn’t scary so much as suspenseful. I survived it and didn’t even need an escort to walk me to my car!
Zodiac does perhaps contain the scariest basement scene I’ve ever witnessed. Not because someone died or was even in any real danger. But I’ve never yelled so loudly at a movie for someone to “DON’T GO IN THE BASEMENT! WHY ARE YOU STILL IN THE BASEMENT? OMG LEAVE. LEAVE. LEAVE. AHHHHHH” … and so on. Jake was this close to completely getting kidnapped and dismembered and it’s just confirmation that you should always trust your gut. Fuck politeness. Especially when the basement owner in question is a complete and total creep. I’m still mad he stayed for so long.
Ok Brooke, did I leave anything out in my assessment on why you love this movie? Does the Zodiac mystery rank as your favorite murder of all time? Tell me more.
B: You did check a lot of the boxes, AM, but there are a couple big factors not present here. First and foremost, David Fincher. The man behind the camera is my favorite director. If you look at his list of films — Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club, Gone Girl, The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — you’ll begin to see some commonalities: darkness, dynamic characters, complexity. David Fincher is the man. And for my part, I think this is his most perfect work. We’ll get into it. The other element is the cast beyond my beloved Jake. You have Robert Downey Jr. in a key role on his comeback tour, Mark Ruffalo getting out of his traditional lighthearted genre, Chloe Sevigny doing Chloe Sevigny things and some stand-out character actors to bring the rest of it to life. It’s rather a perfect storm for me.
The Zodiac is one of my two favorite murders. I love this story for its maddening absence of any real solution. The seemingly endless web of leads and red herrings and false starts is incredible. My other favorite (Ted Bundy) is a story I love because it is so well documented and explained and it is still inconceivable. But Ted and his Volkswagen Murder Mobile are a story for another day. We’re here to talk about the Zodiac.
This movie is newly 10 years old, and I still remember, VIVDLY, watching it in the theater. There is a moment near the end of the film where Robert Greysmith goes to Inspector David Toschi in the middle of the night and in the pouring rain because he has to share what he’s learned. The scene in the diner in which Robert reveals how he identified Arthur Lee Allen as the guy is so suspenseful it’s ridiculous. I have seen this movie so, so many times and I still get chills every time Robert says “This is a case that’s covered both northern and southern California with victims and suspects spread over hundreds of miles, would you agree?” Toschi responds: “Yes.” “Darlene Ferrin worked at the House of Pancakes on the corner of Tennessee and Carrol. Arthur Leigh Allen lived in his mother’s basement on Fresno Street. Door to door, that is less than 50 yards.” “Is that true?” “I’ve walked it.” Seriously, I just got chills watching the clip to transcribe it here. Man. What a master of suspense, Mr. Fincher is. This movie, it’s so well executed.
AM, you touched on this somewhat already, but tell us about your experience of this mystery. As someone who didn’t know much going in, what details haunted you most? Did you find yourself convinced by each of the possible suspects that cropped up? Do you believe Robert Greysmith? Did you know that the Zodiac was never caught?
AM: Oh I knew next to nothing about this case, other than it happened in the Bay Area and that there were puzzles involved. I might have also known it remains an unsolved mystery, but my money is on Arthur Leigh Allan as my prime and really only suspect. The evidence is perhaps circumstantial but his creep factor is off the charts so my unscientific gut says it’s him. I am fully on board with Robert Greysmith here, and it is a complete bummer that this case was never resolved. It’s suspenseful and you don’t get that closure, so it sticks with you. HE COULD STILL BE OUT THERE.
I actually would be interested in watching a comprehensive documentary or listening to a thorough podcast on this case, because while it is gory and scary, it’s not that scary. You’re absolutely right that it’s more suspense thriller than anything else. I’m not super into puzzles, but that piece of it is also really interesting and I’m actually surprised that the film doesn’t go back into those more. Maybe they don’t matter, really? Brooke, enlighten me.
Even though you didn’t ask, I want to inform you about my favorite character since I already know yours. I am on board with Inspector David Toschi. He’s one of the good guys and I do so love me some Mark Ruffalo. He’s charming in a knowledgeable way, you know? Robert Downey, Jr. is of course fantastic and I do love that he has pulled his life together enough to be a great actor again. And I have to give a special shout-out to the 1960s newsroom. Having been a part of a newsroom in the early 2000s, I can’t imagine even less technology and even more phone calls and late-night diner chats. Reporting (especially reporting on crime) is a hard gig, one I ultimately wasn’t good at. Give me my entertainment beat and I’ll be happy as a clam.
Since you brought up your man Mr. Fincher, I thought I’d review my thoughts on the rest of the films you highlight:
- Zodiac — Saw it, thank you, Brooke & Required Viewing. Love the thrills but man is it annoying that we don’t get to have a bonfire or shoot-out to take the confirmed killer out in the end. In my imagination, this is how Creepy Leigh dies.
- Se7en — I saw this in high school and there is no way I’d ever watch it again. Probably the creepiest damn thing ever made. <Shudder>
- Fight Club — Haven’t seen it, but I do know that Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are the SAME DUDE. #spoileralert
- Gone Girl — Poor dumb Ben Affleck. I feel bad for him getting manipulated. No one likes a crazy wife.
- The Social Network — I have to give equal (or almost equal) credit to Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg as writer and star, respectively, but this is a fantastic film and so relevant to those of us who didn’t always have Facebook and definitely didn’t use it in college.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — We saw this as a preview on the Paramount lot (a screening we almost missed because L.A. traffic is literally the worst) at Christmas, so I have a special place in my heart for this film. Baby Elderly Brad Pitt is almost too creepy to watch though.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — I shockingly haven’t seen this entire film or the Swedish original, although I’ve read all three books. We should probably add this to the list.
Brooke, can you elaborate on your Fincher list and let me know your thoughts on each of these?
B: I think the puzzles, or ciphers, definitely matter, as they represent Zodiac for a large swath of the picture. Before we ever see Arthur Leigh Allen or the creepy old basement guy, we see the cryptic symbols and hear the gruesome messages they revealed. One of my favorite sequences in the film has to do with the first cipher. We’re shown it being handed around at the Chronicle and assorted intelligence agencies and police talking though the specifics. Details are provided on the many origins of the symbols and we follow along all the way to the breakfast nook of the couple who actually cracked it. As it turns out, it was a simple substitution cypher — all the ingredients of which Greysmith identifies in a handful of library books. This tells us volumes about Z. Ciphers add to his air of mystery and his prestige … but the first, at least, suggests he’s no expert. Consider this too: the next three ciphers still remain unsolved. It’s been almost half-a-century and those still stand unsolved — unresolved, just like the case.
Now, here comes the part where I argue about Zodiac‘s influence on the cinema that has followed. We both agree that this movie is relentlessly suspenseful. And yet, most of it is about investigation. The hard, dull slog of investigation. Greysmith reads file after file. He compares star alignments to murder dates. Toschi talks through murder scenarios out loud. Entire strings of characters talk about how Zodiac is breaking the pattern. We’re in the weeds for the better part of this movie, and it is mesmerizing. Now consider Spotlight, another Mark Ruffalo joint that goes to some very dark places and revels in the minutiae of reporting. See Rachel McAdams pouring over listings of where priests were placed during a certain year, or beating the streets to find a source. Zodiac proved that there’s just as much tension in this kind of full Ravenclaw investigation as there is in a high-speed chase, and I tend to think that helped Spotlight’s case a great deal.
But on to the Fincher list. Indeed, I shall go through my thoughts.
- Zodiac — Natch, I’m a massive fan. This is my favorite Fincher movie, and spoiler alert, I love this whole damn list.
- Se7en — “Honestly, have you ever seen anything like this?” A great suspense yarn, and one of my early murder fixations.
- Fight Club — It’s sooooooo on the list I can barely comment here, but I’m really upset you know about Brad and Edward. Also, this movie is the union of Fincher with one of my favorite authors (Chuck Palahniuk), the glorious Helena Bonham Carter, and Brad Pitt near his peak.
- Gone Girl — Exquisitely dark and haunting. Rosamund Pike is incredible in this movie, scarier than anything in Se7en.
- The Social Network — I see this one as a natural successor to Zodiac, it’s also an intricate tale of a single-minded guy, and it’s unbelievably well made.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — I also have a vivid memory of seeing this film in theaters. When digitally youth-ified Brad Pitt showed up on the screen my jaw actually dropped. I lost a piece of licorice to the floor. Then his letter to his daughter happened and I sobbed. I adore this picture. I’m mad you’ve seen it cause now I can’t have it on the list.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — Oh dear, sweet summer child, it’s been on the list. I’ve seen both versions and I will take this one 10 times out of 10. I take issue with some of the book blending/clarity (possibly translation) issues in the end of the Swedish version. But even more importantly, I love that David Fincher has the good sense to recognize that Lisbeth is the far more interesting character and shift this narrative closer to her lens than Michael’s. But I shouldn’t be saying any of this, because: on the list.
Okay, AM, imagine you were in San Francisco when Zodiac came to town back in the day. What would you have been doing, and how would you have reacted?
AM: Based on my delicate disposition, I can almost guarantee that I would have freaked out when I heard about a scary unsolved serial killer randomly attacking people. Freaked. Out. I can’t even. I like to think that maybe I would have been involved in a ’60s-era newsroom, probably as a secretary or copy editor because: girl. But like you with your Peggy dreams, my dreams would have been to move up the ranks until I was doing my own investigative pieces. Maybe even on murderers.
I totally dig your analysis on the progression of Full Ravenclaw news gathering efforts. Research isn’t innately sexy, so I do think that’s one of the bigger story challenges to tease apart that process into something interesting to watch. Again, it’s more fun to think about in retrospect through our modern tech-heavy lens, but wouldn’t microfiche have been cool to flit through and find magic clues that solved mysteries?
I’ll happily watch ALL of the Fincher movies, but you know there’s more movie musicals and lighthearted comedies coming your way, right? Your Daria-ness must be balanced in the force with my Disney Princess-ness. Any final thoughts, Brooke? Let’s make a plan to go more in depth on this one and on Ted Bundy, please?
B: There are so many more happy shiny things in my future. But, now that I have your rapt attention we’ll dig into more details on Zodiac and our dear friend Ted — just as soon as we actually start reading books for book club. Until then, stay far, far way from any basements you happen upon in California.
Next time on Required Viewing we’ll jump to the much more recent past and visit with a grieving twentysomething who sets out to find herself on the Pacific Crest Trail.