In 2007, David Fincher was untouchable. His filmography included some of the most inventive, bizarre and absolutely original pieces in the Hollywood circuit. He loved the subversion of expectation in the serial killer format with the film Se7en which to this day is still considered one of the darkest and most violent of his films. It was also a box office smash. Fight Club would open modestly and to mixed reviews but eventually went down as perhaps one of the most featured on the lists of top cult movies ever made. David Fincher wasn't afraid to take risks and did so frequently and to much positive reception. He was Hollywood's dark horse, he made us squirm and squint through countless scenes of violence and terror. So in 2007, Zodiac had a lot of hype behind it. And rightfully so. This film featured Jake Gylenhall, Robert Downey Jr. (pre Iron Man) and others including Mark Ruffalo and Chloe Sevigny. It was star studded. It was about a serial killer, and we knew we were in good hands after Se7en. So why did this movie make less than any of his other films. Why is it 2020 and we haven't heard of any plans for a 4K release, with so many others making the transition?
We are in the norm of popularized cinema, podcasts and TV focused on the unsolved and unbelievable stories of monsters real or fake. My Favorite Murder comes to mind as a female-led podcast that focuses on the macabre and features the slogan almost everyone recognizes: "Stay sexy. Don't get murdered." Just the other week I watched the TV adaptation of the book I'll Be Gone in the Dark. Michelle McNamara sold a gargantuan amount of copies of this book, and HBO's adaptation did it justice by focusing on the gritty details and not shying away from the witnesses' experiences being retold. Even David Fincher returned to the small screen with his popular Netflix series Mindhunter continued for (at least) two consecutive seasons.
So with the over-saturation of the market, why am I discussing a film over a decade ago, that was overall received poorly by audiences and less than stellar by critics? Well this movie's influence may have run deeper than most give it credit for. Fincher is known well for some of his later audi's projects including The Social Network and Gone Girl, both of which were more financially successful features. It was in this mid-career period David Fincher tackled with his prestige and sense of class of films, bouncing between the black humor and violent roots of successful projects which would never see the light of eye by the Academy. Even when he went down the road with the highly critically acclaimed The Social Network he would be snubbed for best picture famously by The Kings' Speech.
Zodiac was very anticipated for its dark trailers and focus on the puzzle element that made The Game so popular, so what were it's initial problems? To start the film is very lengthy, clocking in at just under 3 hours, his longest production thus far. It meanders, in my opinion intentionally, but to some viewers' frustration. It focuses on the dark and brutal murders of the early days of the Zodiac Killer and then takes its time to let the procedural part play out, something that would be more common in the later project Mindhunter. It's slow to put it bluntly. We don't have the jumping out of apartment window moments or basement hazy fist-brawls of prior work. It also doesn't have a satisfying moment of justice or even a real pin-pointed conclusion about the identity of the suspect, something that would slide by or even intrigue more obvious viewers. I believe Fincher was in the process of getting his footing in the scene of the Academy-friendly genre. He wasn't necessarily catering, but he did try to change or at least expand his audience.
The reason this is important now, is that the movie had a lot of undercurrent influence in the podcast, TV and big picture scene that I don't think people fully understand to this day. In 2007, we witnessed almost 3 hours of police work painfully poured over by our protagonists to basically no actual conclusions. This may have seemed frustrating at the time, but in the current climate of DIY detective work, this film might have done better with a more recent release. Serial and other podcasts in the genre focused on the ambiguity of motive and evidence and public bias when it comes to high-profile crimes. I would say this film does the same, just without reaching the newer Reddit-filled and Internet popular chain threads that would allow people to dive deeper than the film is capable. One could argue the serial-format of these podcasts and shows allow for more time between episodes or on the other hand more momentum with the binging crowd to keep audience's buzzing each moment.
This film should be noted for other very modern moments, including an early scene where two police officers allegedly let the killer walk by, only because he suspected the individual could only be a black male. Racial politics like these continue into modern media today. There's also a really great feeling as an audience member to slowly digest information as it comes through at the same level of understanding that every officer in the film has, without 'dumbing' down or hiding any details from us. Don Kaye of DenofGeek.com stresses in a 2019 article the following:
"Over a decade after David Fincher’s film, we are no closer to learning who the Zodiac was, which makes this defiantly un-commercial movie even more powerful. The film doesn’t really end; it just sort of trails off, its characters dejected, confused and, in many instances, permanently damaged."
I'm glad I'm not alone. In fact a few articles stress the importance of the film years after his release. That being said, there are quite a few people I know who have yet to see this and modern audiences who are in the true crime fandom and don't know anything about this. I think it was ahead of its time, inspiring later films visually and aesthetically and falling in the crease of some of Fincher's most famous films. With its current Netflix presence I implore you to check out and commit to the running time of this film, because it's one of the genres current best kept secrets.