Film / Zodiac

"I believe this is a window into this man's soul. Killing is his compulsion. Even though he tries to ignore it, it drives him. It's in his blood."
"Could be, or maybe he just likes the attention."

Zodiac is a 2007 film directed by David Fincher, chronicling the murders of the mysterious Serial Killer known as Zodiac, as well as the people who tried to uncover his identity. The film focuses on three main characters:
  • Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who becomes obsessed with the Zodiac.
  • David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) a renowned San Francisco homicide detective who is put on the case indefinitely.
  • Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), a reporter on Zodiac for Chron.

The main problem catching the killer is that none of the agencies and jurisdictions investigatingnote  have all of the same information, and often the evidence seems to contradict itself. Robert Graysmith eventually takes it upon himself to go between them and solve the crimes.

Zodiac provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adult Fear: Graysmith starts out fearing for the life of his children, including pulling one off a bus after Zodiac threatens to shoot out a school bus. Later subverted when he continues his investigation despite receiving threatening calls to his house and, in a darkly humorous moment, involving his grade-school age kids in the investigation.
  • Alone with the Psycho: When Graysmith goes to interview a cinema owner, convinced that the writing on a poster is Zodiac's, linking him to one of the guy's employees... only for the owner to calmly inform Graysmith that he himself does the posters, and then offer to show him records in the basement. Nothing sinister comes of it, and he's never revisited as a suspect.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Robert Graysmith, who is obsessive about the Zodiac case, causing many people to think there's something... off about him
  • Attention Whore: The Zodiac; he sends letters to the police and media bragging about his kills, including taking credit for murders that may not have been his. Melvin Belli and Paul Avery have shades of this too.
  • Badass Mustache: Ken Narlow.
  • Based on a True Story
  • Beat Panel: 1983, when Robert and Leigh meet face to face. Even though nothing is said, it's clear that both know who the other is.
  • Big Bad: The film revolves around the murders committed by the Zodiac Killer, who's heavily implied to be Arthur Leigh Allen.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While Robert gets off pretty well (you can see that he wrote a book about the Zodiac experiences on the Bestseller rack in a bookstore), Paul ends up becoming a stoner and there is the undeniable fact that the killer is a Karma Houdini.
  • Bound and Gagged: Zodiac's 3rd set of victims (his second on-screen set) end up like this.
  • Call-Back: Robert states he won't be able to stop investigating the case until he's able to look the killer in the eye. He does just that when he meets Arthur in the hardware store at the end.
  • Cast as a Mask: The titular killer is played by 3 different actors (John Lacy, Richmond Arquette, and Bob Stephenson), while the two suspects, Bob Vaughn and Arthur Leigh Allen are played by Charles Fleischer and John Carroll Lynch, respectively.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Robert.
  • Could Say It, But...: Toschi does this with Robert at least twice.
    "I can't discuss the case with you. I can't give you information, and I certainly couldn't tell you to go see Ken Narlow in Napa. N-A-R-L-O-W."
    "I can't tell you anything about that. But maybe Melvin Belli could."
  • Cowboy Cop: Subverted. Toschi is the inspiration for both Bullitt and Dirty Harry, but despite his eccentricities, he's very by-the-book.
  • Creepy Basement: Bob Vaughn's old farmhouse cellar.
    "Not many people have basements in California..."note 
  • Creepy Monotone
    "Good... Bye..."
  • Criminal Mind Games: Oh, boy. The letters, the code, the stained shirt...
  • Da Chief: Jack Mullinax, Vallejo PD; Ken Narlow, the Napa County Sheriff.
  • Dated History: Some things in the film have been proven incorrect, as new evidence has came to light in the years since the film's release. For example, in the film Zodiac is shown sitting in the backseat of the cab before killing Paul Stine, while in real life, there was evidence that he actually sat in the passenger seat next to Stine. Also, Arthur Leigh Allen hasn't been suspected of being the Zodiac for many years.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Avery, which shouldn't be a surprise considering who plays him. Toschi and Armstrong have their moments.
  • Defective Detective: Toschi's self-aggrandizement, ties, and penchant for Animal Crackers give Monk a run for his money.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: A blink-and-you'll-miss-it insert shot where Paul Avery writes that the Zodiac killer is "possibly a latent homosexual".
  • Distant Finale: The last scene takes place in 1991, 8 years after Graysmith finds Leigh at the hardware store. The only person to see the Zodiac without a mask is taken in to see some photographs. He points out the one of Leigh, with an 8 out of 10 assuredness.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul":
    "Call me Leigh. Nobody Calls me Arthur."
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: The establishing shot of San Francisco showing the Ferry Building (with the now-defunct Embarcadero Freeway behind it).
    • Later on, the Transamerica Pyramid is shown frequently, though it's still under construction.
    • Melvin Belli's St. Francis Wood mansion is shown to have a close view of Downtown San Francisco. In reality, the neighborhood is miles from Downtown and the view is obscured by hills.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: Subverted, when hundreds of random citizens report their pet theories to the police.
    Woman: Have you ever considered the killer might be Paul Avery?
    Toschi: Frequently.
    • Also
      Woman: I am the Zodiac.
      Armstrong: And how did you kill your victims?
      Woman: With a gun! No, wait, with a hammer!
  • Famous Last Words
    "Hey, man, you really freaked us out!" Ultimately a Subverted Trope, in that he survives.
    • As well as his third set of victims (second on screen)
      "Everything's going to be fine." Then the Zodiac comes back and stabs the couple repeatedly, although again a Subverted Trope in that the man who says this survives.
  • The Film of the Book: Well, the film of the making of the book. Graysmith's book is eventually seen on screen as well.
  • Foregone Conclusion: In reality, the Zodiac Killer was never found... the movie stays true to this.
  • Gilligan Cut
    Paul Avery: This... can no longer be ignored. What is it you're drinking?
    Graysmith: It's an Aqua Velva. You wouldn't make fun of it if you tried it.
    Avery tries a sip of the drink. Cut to a table full of empty umbrella drinks.
  • Grey Rain of Depression: It rains a lot in Northern California.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: Rick Marshall.
  • Hollywood Nerd: Gyllenhaal's character. However, this is Truth in Television, since Gyllenhaal does look like the real Robert Graysmith - circa 1970s - whose personality was very much like his onscreen counterpart.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Robert.
    "I'm not a reporter; I'm a cartoonist!"
  • Karma Houdini: Zodiac.
  • Make-Out Point: The teenage couple in the opening scene arrive at such a place, only to be shot by the Serial Killer.
  • Mirror Scare
  • Morning Routine: Disrupted to show the effect the killer has on the population.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!
    • The police fail to investigate a suspicious person because of a false report that the suspect is a black man. The killer later taunts them over how they Missed Him by That Much.
    • Toschi fakes a letter to the editor praising his exploits, but gets found out. This throws any evidence he's discovered on the case into doubt, as it could be said that he faked that too.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The entire scene of Graysmith in Rick Marshall's basement. Especially when Marshall tells Graysmith that he lives alone. So whose footsteps were those upstairs?
  • Oh, Crap!: Robert's reaction when he realizes he's alone in a basement with a man who could potentially be Zodiac.
  • One-Word Title
  • The Other Darrin/The Other Marty: Invoked Trope. The Zodiac Killer is played by different actors throughout the film to match what eyewitnesses said and to add to the mystery of his true identity.
  • Police Are Useless: Mostly averted; it's more Obstructive Bureaucracy and public hysteria preventing the cops from doing their jobs properly.
  • Politically Correct History: Averted: 'negro' is used interchangeably with 'black' in the '60s and '70s, and "retard" and "homosexual" are used as insults.
  • Put on a Bus: Michael Mageau, one of the first on-screen victims and the only person to see Zodiac without a mask, skips town as soon as he gets out of the hospital.
    • The Bus Came Back: He returns at the very end of the movie, and positively identifies Allen as his shooter.
  • Red Herring: Rick Marshall manages to take up thirty minutes of the movie despite never being seen and not being Zodiac. We think.
    • The Riverside killing. And the attack on the woman on the highway.
      • Many of the Zodiac's letters only repeat information already published in the newspaper, leading investigators to think he's just taking credit for crimes he didn't commit.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Rare heroic example; by the end, Robert's house has been taken over by boxes of files related to the Zodiac.
  • Sssssnake Talk: "Thisssssss issssss the Zzzzzzzzzodiac ssssssssspeaking..."
  • Sanity Slippage: Graysmith. He goes from a fairly stable if some oddball cartoonist and loving father, to a one-man investigative team trying to solve the Zodiac murder, quitting his job and driving his own family away in the process. It's not until the end, when he's able to look Arthur Leigh Allen - the person he believes to be the Zodiac - in the face that he's able to recover. Apparently this was Truth in Television for the real Graysmith.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: Graysmith has his moments.
    Graysmith: I just want to help.
    Narlow: What are you, some kind of boy scout?
    Graysmith: Eagle Scout, actually... First class.
  • Scenery Porn: The opening shot of the North Bay on the fourth of July, the sweeping view of San Francisco's waterfront, the skyline at Christmas, the Napa Valley, the interminable darkness of the Central Valley at night...
  • Second-Hand Storytelling: The first known murder committed by the Zodiac killer isn't shown in the film due to there being no surviving witnesses. The murder of Cherri Jo Bates also talked about but not shown again due to lack of survivors and due to it happening three years prior to the start of the film.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Nerdy, straight-edge Graysmith versus the boozy, chain-smoking Paul Avery
  • Serial Killer: The Zodiac Killer himself, natch.
  • Show Within a Show: Dirty Harry.
  • Sleeping Single: When Graysmith starts to get entrenched in the case, he stops sleeping in the same bed as his wife, which his kids notice.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: "Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan plays over the radio as Zodiac shoots two people.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial:
    Graysmith: Hey, does anyone ever call me names?
    Paul Avery: You mean like retard?
    Graysmith: Yeah.
    Paul Avery: No.
    • When the Zodiac threatens Paul Avery, everyone begins to wear "I am not Paul Avery" buttons, including Paul Avery.
    • And when Leigh is being interviewed by police:
    Leigh: (to police officers) Those knives with blood on them were from a chicken I killed.
    Leigh: (to police officers) I'm not the Zodiac, and if I was, I certainly wouldn't tell you.
  • The End... Or Is It?: Graysmith is positive he's found the killer, and Fincher clearly agrees that it's a very convincing case, but the film very deliberately leaves it open that they might be wrong. John Carrol Lynch plays the assumed killer as just another guy annoyed at being bothered by the police, so you don't judge him as evil simply because he acts evil: you have to decide based on the available facts. Does the evidence stack up or doesn't it?
  • The '60s (and The '70s, The '80s, The '90s)
  • This Is Reality
  • Time-Shifted Actor
  • Umbrella Drink: Robert's Aqua Velvas.
  • Unperson: Darla's sister seems to drop off the face of the Earth when Graysmith is looking for her. He eventually finds her in a prison.
    • Mike Mageau, the only person to see Zodiac without his mask and live, skips town once he's out of the hospital. He comes back at the very end, 22 years after the shooting.
  • Unreliable Expositor: Sherwood? Who was fired from Questioned Documents? Who drinks like Paul Avery?
  • The Unsolved Mystery: SFPD has officially closed its Zodiac homicide investigation, despite the fact the 1969 case remains unsolved and leads continue to pour in.
  • Unwanted Assistance: The various PDs Robert reaches out to get increasingly fed up with his investigations. By the end, Toschi all but calls the police on Robert when the latter shows up at his door late at night screaming he knows who Zodiac is.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Surprisingly, averted: at Fincher's insistence, the film was meticulously researched for historical accuracy, with the cast and crew consulting with nearly every living person who was involved with the case, including the two surviving victims.
  • We Need to Get Proof: The main challenge once the heroes become convinced that Leigh is the Zodiac. Despite mountains of evidence — the windbreakers, the gloves, the wing-walker boots, the knives, the guns, The Most Dangerous Game, the watch - it could all be dismissed in court as circumstantial.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Graysmith is happy with his children, Toschi retired from the SFPD in 1989, Leigh died of a heart attack before the police could charge him with the murders, and Paul Avery died around 2000.