David Fincher’s Zodiac and the True Crime Genre
I’ve just finished watching David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) for what must be the fourth or fifth time, and I found it as mesmerising as ever. The Zodiac killer was a serial killer who murdered five people in Northern California between December 1968 and October 1969. None of the murders were solved and the identity of the Zodiac is still unknown. In fact very little is known about the killer. He identified himself as the Zodiac in a series of taunting cryptograms and cipher letters that were sent to the Bay Area press at the time of the killings. He claimed to have killed dozens of people but only five murders have been directly linked to him. David Fincher created a brilliant and haunting dramatisation of the Zodiac case. Zodiac is unique amongst crime films for several reasons; firstly, all of the murders which are shown occur within the first thirty minutes of the film, and there is no violence in the remaining two and a half hours. Secondly, the narrative subtly and seamlessly shifts from Detective Dave Toschi’s investigation of the murders to San Fransisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who conducts his own investigation after becoming obsessed with the case. The film is based on Graysmith’s books Zodiac (1986) and Zodiac Unmasked (2002). Ultimately, both Toschi and Graysmith become convinced that a man named Arthur Leigh Allen is the Zodiac killer. Whether Arthur Leigh Allen was or was not the Zodiac killer is still fiercely debated to this day, but the brilliance of the film is how it portrays the maddening and all-consuming nature of obsession, as both Toschi and Graysmith have to go on with their lives never being able to fully know the truth of the case.
If I had one criticism of the film it would be that Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt are too trusting of Graysmith’s version of events. I have never believed historical fiction should be factually accurate in every detail. Writers and film directors adapt and fictionalise historical accounts to suit their vision of the narrative. Fincher freely admits to doing this in his DVD commentary to the film, which he ends with the line, ‘We’re not saying Arthur Leigh Allen was the guy.’ What makes one historical account more factually valid than another is a matter of debate, and Fincher’s states he wanted the second half of the film to be Graysmith’s story. But what if Graysmith’s account of the Zodiac case contains more than just a few mistakes? On his website, Zodiac Killer Facts and the documentary Graysmith Unmasked, Michael Butterfield has done an excellent job of compiling all the errors, distortions and just plain lies that Graysmith has peddled about the Zodiac over the years. Did Fincher and Vanderbilt fall for Graysmith’s lies? Or does their position as filmmakers justify the dramatic licence they take with the story, even if it means dealing with a charlatan like Graysmith? Well, the amount of research that was conducted for Zodiac is truly astounding. Fincher and Vanderbilt meticulously and painstakingly reproduced the the late 1960s and 1970s period, and many of the details of the case are taken directly from the police reports. In some instances this is taken too absurd levels: for the Lake Berryessa murder scene, Fincher shot it at the exact spot where Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Shephard were attacked. As there were no longer trees at that spot, and as the Zodiac hid behind trees as he was approaching the couple, Fincher had trees flown in and planted at the spot to make the scene more authentic. A tad excessive?
Zodiac is not a documentary, and it is fully legitimate for Vanderbilt and Fincher to regard the established facts of the case as a malleable first draft in order to create a work of historical fiction. On the other hand, the film does benefit from the enormous amount of research that was conducted. It is just a shame that considering the amount of research, Fincher was not prepared to be a bit more sceptical towards a True Crime Writer who has been so thoroughly discredited.
Below is part one of the excellent documentary Graysmith Unmasked. All of the documentary is available to watch on YouTube and forms an almost complete debunking of Graysmith’s investigation: