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Zodiac: a Movie Review, and a Note.

Zodiac (2007)

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, etc.

Directed By: David Fincher


Zodiac is brilliant. Completely absorbing from beginning to end. Is it long? I guess so. I didn’t really notice.

Consider that in light of the fact that I know the Zodiac story. I’ve read Robert Graysmith’s books about this most mysterious of serial killers. I’ve tried my hand at solving one of the ciphers that’s never been cracked. Hell, I have my own kooky theory about who Zodiac might have been. The unsolved Zodiac murders have held my fascination since I was a teen — I read Graysmith’s first book just after it was first published in the 80s. I may not be a “Zodiacologist,” but I’m pretty close.

Zodiac is engrossing, for the most part, because of the incredible work done by director David Fincher and the people he assembled to make this masterful true-crime movie.

The late 60s and 70s are captured with so much attention to detail that it felt like a form of time-travel to watch events unfold. From Zodiac’s second attempt at double-murder on July 4, 1969 (one victim survived), through the early 1990s, every detail of time and place is re-created with immense care. The soundtrack, for instance — other reviewers have already made note of the clever use of Donovan’s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” and I have to agree. I’ve always thought the song was pretty creepy-sounding, and the way it weaves into the fabric of this movie is a touch of dramatic genius.

The acting is top-notch all the way around. Robert Downey Jr., in my opinion, should get a best supporting actor nomination from the Academy for his vibrant portrayal of the witty but deeply troubled Paul Avery, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who was actually threatened by the Zodiac at one point. Avery gets most of the limited moments of humor in the movie, and Downey plays them with perfect pitch — never over-the-top.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist-turned-true-crime scribe and wannabe detective, and it is hard to think anyone but Gyllenhaal could have played this role properly. He is entirely believable in the way he grows from the wide-eyed former Eagle Scout into the obsessed amateur sleuth. It’s some of the best work I’ve seen this actor do. I once thought that Gyllenhaal could be like Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks if he wasn’t careful — one of those actors who are easy to like, but you end up remembering them more than the roles they play.

In Zodiac, Jake Gyllenhaal succeeds in erasing that impression. His Graysmith is likable and sympathetic, but never quite the hero of the story. In doing this Gyllenhaal really seems to disappear inside the role, proving his intelligence and maturity as an actor.

I read at least one other review that implied that Mark Ruffalo was miscast as Inspector Dave Toschi, the famed San Francisco homicide detective who was the model for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character — I disagree. Ruffalo’s portrayal humanizes the legendary Toschi, and that was necessary for this story.

Toschi’s little quirks come across in Ruffalo’s characterization — his cadging of food from his partners, his temper and sensitivity. Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, as Toschi’s partner Bill Armstrong, convey an easy rapport between their characters, professionals, yes, but camrades, too.

The secondary roles in this movie are equally well-played. John Carroll Lynch, as Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, simply doesn’t have enough screen time. Lynch’s Leigh Allen is full of understated menace, shaded with irony. Lynch, with a spooky dead-eyed stare, makes it easy to believe that Allen was, if nothing else, creepy enough to convince a number of people that he could be a serial killer.

Surviving Zodiac victim Bryan Hartnell is a small role in the context of this movie, but Patrick Scott Lewis makes the most of it, even in a short scene where Hartnell is brought in to identify a tape-recorded voice as the Zodiac. Lewis gets a chance with very little screen time to ably act an arc from carefree college kid on a weekend outing to limping survivor, shadowed and ghost-like.

Zodiac is a must-see for true crime fans, and anyone who loves well-made, well-acted cinema. If you want to see all the blood splatter and brain matter, this ain’t the movie for you (and frankly, this isn’t the blog for you, either). There are certainly graphic moments, but Zodiac is for the cerebral true crime fanatic — the puzzle solver, the crime historian.

Zodiac is a very rare kind of movie, in my experience — a thinking person’s crime drama. If only every movie in this genre were so finely wrought.

Go see it, and enjoy.

Notes about the source material for this movie

Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac books are controversial, and rightly so. Graysmith — and this becomes very clear in the movie — fell into a deep trap that is surely familiar to anyone who has ever done any armchair sleuthing. He became obsessed first with the crimes and finding the monster behind them, and then with his idea of who that criminal must have been.

Both books, Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, ended up being devoted to the idea that Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac. Graysmith fell prey to the amateur sleuth’s big bugaboo: forming a theory and then trying to make it fit the facts. Real detectives, with access to as much real evidence as they can collect, are able to — hopefully — let the facts, the evidence, dictate the theory of the crime.

Evidence that would have made Leigh Allen a slam-dunk in a court of law for the Zodiac murders simply doesn’t seem to exist. No one ever conclusively matched any samples of Allen’s handwriting to Zodiac’s. Even a relatively uninformed look at samples side by side show almost no commonalities. Fingerprints associated with Zodiac did not match Allen’s prints. Ultimately, DNA didn’t match. All the evidence that points to Allen being the Zodiac Killer is either hearsay or circumstantial, at best.

Moreover, Allen was a convicted child molester. His known M.O., something no one really seemed to consider at the time, doesn’t sound like it fit with the Zodiac’s crimes, at all.

Allen’s pedophilia became known when he was working as an elementary school teacher. It was classic, for a pedophile — Arthur Leigh Allen worked his way into a job that would provide him constant access to his prey. He was, by many accounts, a well-liked teacher by his peers and students… until his groping of a few kids came to light. In high school, Allen was sociable, popular, and a star athlete. He had a time in his life when he was the golden boy. Right up until the fact that he was a pedophile became known, Arthur Leigh Allen seemed to lead a successful, charmed life, with a network of good friends and supportive family.

Arthur Leigh Allen was probably the type of pedophile who groomed his victims, ingratiated himself with them and their families. I base this assumption on two things: Allen’s first choice of job would have required him to appear to be ‘good’ with kids; Allen never served much time for molestation convictions, at least not by today’s standards. Had he been overtly violent or sadistic in his attacks on children, he surely would have eventually done much more time in lockup.

While the molestation of a child is inherently sadistic, there are, broadly speaking, two types of pedophile. One type insinuates himself into a chosen victim’s life. This pedophile develops what he thinks of as a relationship with the child. Many of them seem appalled at the idea that they might do what they perceive as harm to a kid. If they murder, it is a twisted act of desperation.

The second type of pedophile appears to be less common. Sometimes called a mysoped, the second type of pedophile is sadistic. They have poor social skills. They will travel great distances, stalk, and kidnap children. The mysoped typically tortures victims, and beyond murder, may even become cannibalistic if not caught early in their horrific career. The source webpage I’ve linked has a good quote about mysopeds: “There is a sense of something inherently ‘evil’ about their existence. They evoke a reaction of contempt that is beyond what society normally reserves for the criminal element.”

In many ways, Zodiac seemed to be the first killer of his kind (he wasn’t, but that’s for another blog entry). That said, there have certainly been killers in the decades since who seem to have some notable similarities.

David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, murdered couples parking on sidestreets, just like Zodiac. He sent taunting letters to the press, like Zodiac. When he was arrested, Berkowitz turned out to be a weird, psychopathic loner with mother issues.

BTK, Dennis Rader, had a lot in common with Zodiac, and may have even modeled some of his behavior after the Zodiac Killer. Rader was more socially competent than Berkowitz, and on the surface he lived a perfectly presentable middle-class life. Rader, unlike Berkowitz or Zodiac (with one exception, in Zodiac’s case), was a much more hands-on killer, one whose sexual psychopathy was obvious to anyone examining the crime scenes he left behind. While Rader used guns and knives to subdue those he attacked, he preferred to strangle his victims.

However, Rader loved to play with the police, and taunt the public by using the press to get his creepy letters out. When Rader decided to “come out of retirement” as BTK in 2004, having been silent for nearly 20 years as far as letters went, he even sent a puzzle to the Wichita (KS) authorities. He shared Zodiac’s love of the limelight, and his domestic terrorist’s inclination to try and spook the populace.

David Berkowitz had no known tendency towards pedophilia, and while Dennis Rader did have some inclination towards children, his primary victims were adult women in his general age-group.

Pedophile serial killers usually kill children, based on the research I’ve done. They often seem to be mysopeds. The best example from recent years is Joseph Edward Duncan III, who sounds like the definition of a sadistic pedophile. When Joseph Edward Duncan did kill two adults in May of 2005, it was to get them out of the way and eliminate witnesses. As brutal and bloody as the deaths of Brenda Groene and Mark McKenzie were, they were also, in a sense, utilitarian, for Duncan’s purposes.

It’s simple. Had Arthur Leigh Allen been a killer, many of his victims would surely have been kids. No murder definitively linked to the Zodiac Killer involved a child. One person who survived an apparent encounter with Zodiac had a baby with her, and she said Zodiac threatened to throw the baby out the window of the car in which they were riding, but that was it. Zodiac threatened to kill children — but then he jeered at the police when it became apparent they believed his threat.

Zodiac was more interested in killing women. Two male victims surviving his attacks may have even goaded Zodiac into killing cabbie Paul Stine. Stine was the last victim to be definitively linked to Zodiac. Stine’s murder seemed at the time like a bizarre deviation from Zodiac’s pattern.

But when the killer phoned in the knife attacks on Cecilia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell at Lake Berryessa, he specifically referred to a “double murder.” By the time Stine was murdered on October 11, 1969, it was all over the press, how another male had survived a Zodiac attack. Zodiac wanted to prove he could kill anyone he chose, at the time he chose.

Because the movie Zodiac is based on Graysmith’s books, Arthur Leigh Allen is the suspect who receives the most focus. Only one other likely candidate, Rick Marshall, is discussed at any length. Marshall is among the many one-time suspects who, like Allen, have been cleared by police.

My point is this — Zodiac is a fantastic movie based on real events, but it is not a documentary. Robert Graysmith’s books contain a lot of good information about the murders and likely suspects other than Marshall or Allen, but Graysmith’s books also contain truckloads of bias, more than you can find today in 50 crime blogs. There are many suppositions and theories presented as fact, not to mention all the hearsay from people who may have had major axes to grind with guys like Arthur Leigh Allen. By the time I finished the second book, Zodiac Unmasked, I had the distinct feeling I was reading the work of a man trying too hard to prove a point he could not actually prove.

I have much more sympathy for Robert Graysmith than many who talk about these crimes online, because I understand something about the sort of obsession under which he labored for so long. I do believe that when the man began to try and find out everything he could about The Zodiac, he did it for perfectly understandable reasons, reasons familiar to many people reading this blog or writing their own crime blog. I am certain that Robert Graysmith went to lengths to gather all the info he needed to write both books that might awe the average crime blogger.

When he was “done,” though, he had to have a conclusion. A very good true crime writer once advised me that you shouldn’t try a book about an unsolved crime unless you think you can solve it. He knew what he was saying, because in the business of book-selling, that’s the kind of true crime tome that gets attention, and makes money. Robert Graysmith’s second marriage ended because of his pursuit of the Zodiac (according to the movie, anyway), and Graysmith put in untold amounts of time pursuing the case. It seems like a conclusion of some sort would be mandatory in that case, and Graysmith’s conclusion was that Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac.

Real evidence and what we know now about criminal psychology just don’t agree. I’d love for Allen to have been the guy — he was already a creep of the worst sort.

I think Zodiac got away. He either died shortly after the last known letter from him or got put away for another crime entirely. It could be that he basically retired, as Dennis Rader did for many years. The kind of person I think he might have been I will save for another blog entry. Perhaps Zodiac found another route to satisfy his jones for power and control, a route that wouldn’t put him on a collision course with the police.

Is he still out there? Anything is possible. Seems like this movie would bring some word from him if he was, though.

Tom Voigt has compiled one of the best resources on or offline for anyone wanting to study the Zodiac murders, the suspects, the theories as to who he was, what he was like. I’ve already linked several pages in this entry, but here’s the main URL, which is old news many regular readers of this blog:


To start working on your own ideas or just get an idea of what really happened, start with ZodiacKiller.com. The new movie and Robert Graysmith’s books are worthwhile reference points, but Tom Voigt’s site is where you should begin if you want to get a much more balanced view of this infamous series of unsolved murders.

Whatever you do, be warned: you will get hooked. And once you see Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith near the end of Zodiac, you will understand the fevered, slightly mad gleam in his eye.