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Not your average serial killer movie

Review by Joe Allen | March 30, 2007 | Page 13

Zodiac, directed by David Fincher, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr.

FROM THE summer of 1969 through 1974 the San Francisco Bay Area was terrorized by a serial killer known as the Zodiac. Who the Zodiac killer was or is remains unknown and thus his murders and attempted murders remain unsolved to this very day.

In 2004, the San Francisco police disbanded their Zodiac unit. Not only did the Zodiac do all this in one of the most densely populated areas of the U.S., but his victims weren't made up of society's "dispossessed"; they were all white and some of them were college students.

The new film Zodiac, based on a book by Robert Graysmith, is less about the gruesome murders, though they are chillingly recreated, than about the failed hunt for the killer. How did he get away with it all? The film directly deals with some of the reasons why the Zodiac got away with his killing spree while only hinting at others.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the socially challenged Robert Graysmith, the recently hired political cartoonist of the San Francisco Chronicle, who has a knack for puzzles and codes and who becomes obsessed with solving the Zodiac case. Graysmith, develops an awkward working relationship with the newspaper's top crime reporter, the booze-soaked Paul Avery, soon after the Zodiac's first coded message is received by the newspaper.

The cynical Avery is confused by Graysmith's interest in the case. In a revealing exchange in their local bar, Avery asks Graysmith, hinting at increased newspaper circulation and personal fame, "This is all good for us. What's in it for you?" He answers meekly, "I just want to help."

Graysmith and Avery compete with and try to curry favor with the lead detective on the case, Inspector Dave Toschi. Toschi works diligently to crack the case but is frustrated at key moments by the police themselves, for instance when the police blew their best chance at capturing the Zodiac.

In the fall of 1969, the Zodiac brazenly killed a cab driver in a middle-class San Francisco neighborhood. Teenagers witnessed what they thought was a drunk fighting with the cabby. When they called the police, they made no reference to the race of the attacker. But the police dispatcher sent a report to all cops in the vicinity describing the attacker as Black.

A man, later believed to be the Zodiac, was spotted by two patrolmen but wasn't stopped and questioned because he was white. In the mid-1970s, when the case had gone cold, Graysmith begins his decade-long search for the Zodiac's identity.

He quickly realizes that despite the much-publicized cooperation between the various Bay Area police forces, a lack of cooperation was the reality as they competed with each other to solve the killings.

Early on in the case, they hid clues and leads from each other, and even the interrogation of the man that many still consider to be the prime suspect.

The film is also hints at other problems: the pseudoscience of handwriting experts and the homophobia of reporters and psychologists who believed that the Zodiac was a "latent homosexual."

Serial killer films have over the last two decades became a standard product of Hollywood. Most are terrible and predictable--the "evil genius" with super-human strength, who taunts the police and is ultimately captured by equally clever and dedicated cops.

Elements of this have their origin in the Zodiac case. Dirty Harry, the 1971 film with Clint Eastwood, tells the tale of a serial killer called "Scorpio," clearly based on Zodiac, who is ultimately taken by down by the Bill of Rights-hating Harry Callahan. Eastwood's right-wing movie spawned a generation of crap.

Ironically, Zodiac is in many ways the anti-serial killer film. There is no evil genius but a compulsive killer who gets away because of the bigotry, incompetence and competition of the cops. The film is well worth seeing. It is made in a style reminiscent of films of the 1970s rather than the gore and overblown special effects that followed.

If there is one flaw in the film, it's the need to point the finger at the alleged killer when the identity remains as unclear today as it was nearly four decades ago. Go and enjoy the unsolved mystery.

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