Illustration by Ana Godis
There is a fourth major screen presence in Zodiac: the title character, who is played by a number of different actors in various guises before disappearing as a physical presence around the midpoint of the movie, last seen and heard threatening a female hitchhiker who survives her encounter. This set-piece, based on the recollections of one Kathleen Johns (Ione Skye), pays off the ruthlessness of what has come before, even as it emphasizes Fincher’s restraint. Because we’ve seen in bloody detail what the Zodiac is capable of in the prologue and the borderline unwatchable lakeside filleting of a couple in Berryessa, his warning to Kathleen that “before I kill you, I’m going to throw your baby out the window” is hideously credible. But, amazingly, the historical record intervenes as a deus ex machina; Kathleen’s unlikely escape and roadside salvation constitute this pressurized movie’s only moment of true relief.
Zodiac’s multiple-casting trick is there to account for the possibility — floated in Graysmith’s book, as well as several other studies — of multiple killers, either working in tandem or in a copycat scenario. Broadly speaking, the film follows Graysmith’s hypothesis that the most plausible suspect was one Arthur Leigh Allen (referred to in Zodiac the book pseudonymously as “Bob Starr”), a disgraced elementary school teacher with a history of pedophilia who died in 1992 surrounded by a veritable mountain of persuasive circumstantial evidence, including a series of supposedly self-incriminating comments to friends and relatives. Allen was ultimately exculpated by DNA testing and inconclusive fingerprint matches, events which Zodiac presents without trying to either reinforce or rebut them. “I don’t want this [movie] to be about convicting Arthur Leigh Allen,” Fincher said in 2005. “Certainly [Graysmith] came to his conclusion and it was good enough for him . . . When [Allen] died, he felt like it was put away. That’s not what we want to represent.”
Buy the book David Fincher: Mind Games. By Adam Nayman