David Fincher’s Zodiac: The Movie That Never Ended

Why David Fincher’s masterpiece about the Zodiac Killer still haunts us all these years later.

David Fincher’s Zodiac is now over ten years old. The two-hour-and-38-minute film follows the years-long investigation by police and journalists of the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who killed five people and injured two others during a spree that stretched across 1968 and 1969 in northern California. The Zodiac may have also been responsible for a number of other killings, going back as far as 1963 and as late as 1972, but those have never been confirmed. The Zodiac himself, who wrote a series of letters to the press, was never captured and a long list of suspects that have surfaced over the years has yet to yield a conclusive answer to the question of his identity.

Fincher’s goal with Zodiac was not to make a fast-paced, grisly thriller like his earlier classic, Seven, but a finely detailed procedural more in the style of All the President’s Men. The film followed the dogged efforts of a newspaper-cartoonist-turned-amateur-investigator named Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a dissolute journalist named Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and two San Francisco police detectives, Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), as they pursued their leads — sometimes crossing paths but often independently — and hit dead end after dead end as the case took its toll on their personal and professional lives, with the Zodiac remaining frustratingly out of reach.

The director’s recreation of the initial Zodiac killings, his attention to period detail and the almost obsessive focus on the main characters as they dig deeper into the mystery, only to uncover more riddles, were just some of the key components that made Zodiac into a quiet, thoroughly unsettling masterpiece. The cast was uniformly excellent, bolstered by strong supporting turns from Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Brian Cox, and especially Charles Fleischer as a man who may have a connection to the Zodiac killings (and who Gyllenhaal interviews in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes) and John Carroll Lynch in a genuinely chilling performance as Arthur Leigh Allen, who emerged as a prime suspect at one point in the investigation.

It’s clear that Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt, working from Graysmith’s books on the Zodiac, wanted the viewer to walk away thinking Allen was the killer as well, and indeed no one could be faulted for believing that. From the jaw-dropping interrogation scene in which he calmly and almost gleefully shows off his Zodiac watch to three detectives while offhandedly mentioning that the trunk of his car is full of bloody knives, to the climactic scene in which Graysmith confronts him in a hardware store only to be met with a cold, dead-eyed stare, the cinematic Allen all but tattoos “I am the Zodiac” on his forehead.

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In real life, plenty of circumstantial evidence pointed to Allen as well: he did wear the Zodiac brand watch (which bore the same cross-circle symbol found in the Zodiac’s letters), he owned the same model typewriter on which at least one of the Zodiac’s letters was written, and he lived for a while near where one of the killings took place. He was placed in the general region of several other attacks, he had the same shoe size as the Zodiac, and there were a number of other strikes against him as well. But exhaustive handwriting analysis and, later, DNA testing suggested — although not conclusively — that Allen (who died in August 1992 at the age of 58) was not the murderer. 

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In the intervening years, the case went largely cold and the Zodiac — as far as we know — did not take any more lives. But in the wake of Allen’s death and the inability to link him through physical evidence to the killings, a number of other suspects surfaced, some more credible than others. One in particular, Richard Gaikowski, has become a favorite of internet sleuths and was briefly investigated in 1986 but never officially named a suspect. However, since 2009, more intriguing evidence surfaced about him.

A former editor at San Francisco counter-culture newspaper Good Times, Gaikowski resembled the composite police sketches made of the Zodiac and the patterns of his life (where he lived, when and where he moved, etc.) put him in the vicinity of at least two victims, Darlene Ferrin (the third known person killed by the Zodiac) and Paul Stine (who was killed while driving a cab). A police dispatcher who took a call from the Zodiac in 1969 identified Gaikowski’s voice as being that of the killer, while handwriting analysis remained inconclusive. Although Gaikowski was arrested for minor offenses in the 1960s, no records of his fingerprints remain. He died in 2004, with not enough evidence ever attached to him — like Arthur Leigh Allen — for the police to ever make an arrest.

Gaikowski is far from the only recent Zodiac suspect to emerge (and this article doesn’t even include several others, including Rick Marshall, portrayed by the aforementioned Charles Fleischer in Fincher’s film, and Manson family member Bruce Davis). A recent History Channel series, The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer, helped renewed interest in the case, and sparked a new wave of tips and theories. More DNA testing is now underway, and perhaps we’ll finally see this case solved soon.

(Composite sketches of the Zodiac Killer):

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The Zodiac case was declared “inactive” by San Francisco police in 2004, although it was reopened again in 2007 when some of the recent suspects began coming to light. It remains unsolved. The Zodiac killed five people that we know of, claimed to have slaughtered as many as 37, and wrote at least 18 letters to the press and police. Yet he remained a phantom, an elusive shadow cast over the people of Northern California for nearly a decade until he seemed to just fade away, along with any real chance of ever catching him. The police, the press, and the families of the victims eventually had to go on with their lives — as did the Zodiac himself, although we can only hope he no longer walks among us.

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. It is the director’s ultimate commentary on the period in which it was set and the mindset of the people living during that time, including the psychopath who terrified them, and its nihilistic, uneasy ending mirrors the unsettled nature of American society as we bid goodbye to the 1970s and entered an era which, in retrospect, began laying out the roadmap for our current national nightmare.

Fincher not only left us with one of the greatest films of the 21st century, but a disquieting examination of how one twisted human mind can come out of nowhere to lay waste to whoever or whatever gets in its path — and then vanish into the mists of time while its legacy of ruination and horror lingers on.

With thanks to ZodiacKiller.com, the most comprehensive resource on the web about the mystery and suspects.