June 22, 2021
Warning: This article discusses many of the ending scenes
In my previous piece, focused on Mank (2020), I wrote about the idea that a story is essentially a lens on truth, as it joins together distinct pieces of information and events into a connected whole, and inevitably does so through the storyteller’s lens (their particular way of joining the pieces). That film, the latest in David Fincher’s filmography, was more specifically about the truth of people, and about how a storyteller gets to their truth without locking it and owning the keys to it.
Thirteen years back in the director’s work, Zodiac dived in not-too-dissimilar waters, but expanded them in many directions of its own. It remains Fincher’s top work to date.
Zodiac is the story of a time and a place in which Fincher spent much of his childhood — the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 60’s and early 70’s — marked by public alertness to a murderer who used to write cryptic letters to the police and to newspapers. From the opening scene, this enigma of a man is slowly drawn.
It’s natural that any story that features at its center a mysterious serial killer who goes uncaught will always have a special aura reserved for that character. But even if Zodiac doesn’t exactly play against that idea, it’s also clear enough that the film is not in the business of drawing the archetypical picture of a God-like criminal mastermind. The titular character, who may or may not be among the ones we see onscreen at different times, can by turns come across as weak, child-like, in need of help and/or largely insignificant. He may be responsible for a small handful of crimes, but the fact is that he repeatedly claims to be much deadlier than he really is, at one point taking responsibility for as many as 37 victims without there being the least bit of evidence for it. He is a case of enigmatic broken humanity that remains beyond grasp.
But the mystery draws people in. In one sense limited by statements such as “Do you know that more people die in the East Bay commute every three months than that idiot ever killed?” and in another sense taking on a life of its own, the Zodiac enigma becomes huge in public consciousness.