When the System Works

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“No Need for Due Process, Right?”

About ninety minutes into Zodiac, Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) attends a theatrical screening of Dirty Harry. By design, Dirty Harry’s narrative parallels Toschi’s current investigation: a string of Northern California murders. Inspector Toschi, like Dirty Harry’s protagonist, Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), is tasked with tracking down a serial killer. Both murderers (fictional and nonfictional) send letters to the police, demanding items be printed in the press. The villain in Eastwood’s film goes by “the Scorpio Killer.” Toschi hunts “The Zodiac.”

During the showing, Toschi becomes agitated, eventually leaving the theater to wait in the lobby. Later, as the audience files out, the police commissioner—Toschi’s boss—approaches him. “That Harry Callahan did a hell of a job closing your case!” he says, referring to the film’s infamous conclusion. In the final scene of Dirty Harry (not featured in Zodiac), Eastwood throws his badge into a nearby body of water. He’s frustrated at what he believes is a broken system. Bureaucracy and red tape nearly cost him his chance at the Scorpio. To catch a killer he must be willing to get his hands, you know, dirty. The unsolved Zodiac case weighing on his mind, Toschi quips through the smoke of his cigarette: “Yeah, no need for due process, right?”

Herein lies the chief moral perplexity of David Fincher’s Zodiac: as a society, we desire justice, but when confronted with ambiguity, we’re tempted to disregard the law in order to achieve it.

Zodiac’s ending juxtaposes this conclusion. Like the historical Zodiac investigation—spurred by a string of murders committed in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1968 to 1969—film audiences never discover, with exact certainty, who the real killer is. One may have a good idea, the final few scenes of the film seems to imply such, but ultimately we’re left in a state of perpetual ambiguity.

As a result, one may watch Zodiac, or even reflect on the actual case, and lament over the inadequacies of the justice system. Unlike Dirty Harry, there is no tightly worded catchphrase before righteous wrath is dispensed—“Are you feeling lucky, punk?” There are no charges filed. There are no days in court. Someone got away with murder.

To be honest, Zodiac’s lack of resolution left me slightly depressed, even a bit angry, the first time I watched the film. What’s the point? But far from being an indictment on the “system,” Fincher’s narrative, in actuality, reinforces its validity. Zodiac didn’t make me desire truth any less, but it did make me realize the San Francisco hills it takes to get there—if it ever does get there.

Yes, the Zodiac killer was never caught. And yes, this is proof that the justice system did something right.

A Genre Subverted

Zodiac begins on July 4, 1969, in Vallejo, California. At the movie’s five-minute mark, the first on-screen murder occurs. 20 minutes into the film, a couple is stabbed. At minute twenty-three, a cab driver is shot in the back of the head.

At this point, Zodiac looks to be fashioned into hyper-violent crime drama, akin to something like Peter Yates’ Bullitt (1968)—where the real-life Toschi also inspired Steven McQueen’s character—or the aforementioned Dirty Harry. Growing up with those films as a child, even Zodiac’s pre-narrative production house logos, absorbed with film grain and projector marks, reminded me of the more violence-laced law enforcement mysteries of the sixties and seventies.

But after the third murder, the story makes a sharp turn just when we think we’re about to watch its characters veer off the side of a cliff. For Zodiac’s remaining two hours, no more violence is depicted on screen. No guns fired, no stab wounds, and no officers tossing their badge into the bay. In fact, for a film chronicling the investigation of a serial killer, Zodiac is rather tame.

Leveraging audience expectations, Zodiac gives viewers the blood they have come to expect, before systematically pulling the rug out from under them. Fincher’s finished product is less a cinematic spectacle, and more a grounded and realistic look at the moral weight surrounding what it means to achieve justice in a world that’s anything but well-defined.

The “Toschi” emulated in Bullitt and Dirty Harry—though both influenced by the real-life detective—is far different from the grounded inspector Ruffalo portrays in Fincher’s film. Rather than a loose-cannon officer who delivers his own brand of righteous judgment, Toschi lives by the book. His gun never leaves its holster. He does not find himself racing through the streets of San Francisco in a Ford Mustang GT (like Bullitt’s iconic sequence) or in hand-to-hand combat with a hardened murderer. Rather, he’s left to wrangle, for the most part, what amounts to mundane police work.

Behind the Justice System’s Curtain

Zodiac is arranged into a dual storyline structure of sorts, with the narrative orbiting two sets of characters: San Francisco Police Inspectors Toschi and his partner Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), and San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and the paper’s cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Both groups launch their own investigations into the Zodiac killings after the murderer begins mailing letters to newspapers in the San Francisco area. He threatens more violence if the editors don’t publish his cyphers in their respective prints, a decision that causes widespread panic among the city.

James Vanderbilt’s script, much like the actual Zodiac case, doesn’t provide a strict, definitive solution regarding the identity of the Zodiac Killer. Rather, for Zodiac’s 157-minute runtime, viewers watch on as the case detectives follow leads, discover clues, and, in the end, find themselves with more questions than answers.

Fincher meticulously details—to the point of near exhaustion—the toil of everyday police work. Many of the film’s scenes are logged via subtitles according to their date, time, and/or location—further emphasizing the minutiae of the case. The investigators also experience confusion and difficulty when attempting to coordinate with other departments. During one scene at the beginning of the case, Officer Armstrong makes four phone calls just to be directed to a different law enforcement agency. Later in the film, to his bewilderment, Inspector Toschi learns one local Police department failed to share a vital piece of information with his team.

When the police do get a break, the justice system seems to handcuff Toschi and his team. After a short interview with a man named Arthur Leigh Allen, the detectives believe they’ve found the killer. Yet, all their “evidence”—record of threats, mental instability, even a wristwatch that says “Zodiac”—is circumstantial.

It is not until a year later that Toschi receives approval to search Allen’s trailer. The supposed damning evidence is never found. When Toschi later discovers that Allen cleaned out his home two weeks after initial questioning, the system again comes into question. Unable to produce any solid arguments, the officers direct their investigation in other, ultimately futile, directions.

Solid, bureaucratic police work takes time, energy, and resources—and some officers still end up with nothing to show for it. Sure, it’s a Hollywood-cliché for detectives to throw their badges into muddy pools of water, but when a murderer is on the loose, is the alternative that much better? Who needs a piece of minted copper, when you have the smooth, stainless-steel barrel of a Magnum.

At its core, Zodiac raises the question: is a system, designed to eliminate Harry Callahan’s, truly effective?

Smile for The Camera

As the very public Zodiac investigation drags on, the city of San Francisco views the detectives’ work as a critique against the entire law enforcement structure. As the Zodiac’s messages are dispersed, the killer’s mythos looms above Inspectors Toschi and Armstrong like their city’s infamous fog. Public leaders express their disappointment that no formal charges have been made. Everyone from radio show call-ins to headline editors offer their opinions. They long for a climatic showdown. Or, at the very least, a definitive answer.

These themes share a common thread with Fincher’s most recent film, Gone Girl. In Gone Girl, the 24-hour news cycle surrounds a Midwestern man, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), after his wife mysteriously vanishes. Did Nick kill his spouse? Does he know where she is? The general population scrutinizes every move, smile, and speech Nick makes. When public perception turns on him, the rumors become even more eccentric—at one point, Nick is accused of having a romantic relationship with his sister.

The strict polarizing essence of Nick’s public reputation is embodied during a speech near the middle of the film. As Nick speaks from a gazebo at the heart of his town, Fincher records the response of two listening women.

“He’s hot,” says one.

“He’s creepy,” huffs the other.

In Zodiac and Gone Girl public opinion, spurred by the flash headlines, tends to disregard moral shading, and instead drift toward schism. This ideology yanks on Toschi’s investigation, often dictating the effectiveness of the detectives. In this world, the populace latches on to answers, not because they are necessarily true, but because they erase the haziness of the unknown.

Anyone Can Be a Detective

Fincher gives viewers a personified window into this struggle with ambiguity by focusing the last hour of the film on Robert Graysmith. Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, becomes obsessed with the murders when letters from the Zodiac begin arriving at his office. Embracing the case as his own, Graysmith sets out to write a book about his findings.

In many ways, Graysmith’s character serves as a caricature of public opinion regarding the Zodiac, and frankly, how our current society often views the “true crime” genre—whether it be a property like Serial or Making a Murderer. With enough time, effort, and resources, the murderer’s identity can be obtained. It’s a lack of resources and intelligence, not the lack of hypothetical ability, which keeps the case from reaching a definitive conclusion. While this ideal is later proved to be misleading, the film, to some extent, makes an argument for Graysmith’s involvement.

Graysmith approaches the investigation with new lenses. He is not required to operate according to a set of predefined procedures. He can question any individual he likes. And as someone not beholden to a particular jurisdiction, he can float between law enforcement agencies rather, surprisingly, easily.

The passage of time carries the weight of the unsolved murders—the bulk of the film takes place between 1969 and 1983. As the story progresses, the interiors of the sets begin to deteriorate. They feel worn. Lived in. The aesthetics reflect both the degradation of the case and the plunging psyche of the characters. It is no wonder that both Toschi and Graysmith each lose their “partners” (Armstrong and Avery) to the infertile quest.

Eventually, time eats away at the cartoonist as well. Graysmith’s house becomes cluttered with boxes of case files. He not only alienates his wife and children, but he puts them in harm’s way by going public with his investigation. Graysmith’s charming, boyish look soon becomes disheveled. Visiting a witness in prison, he explains his work on the Zodiac case. “You’ve got the look,” she remarks. Fincher cuts to a close up of Gyllenhaal’s face. His eyes are baggy, his hair messy.

“I Need to Know It’s Him”

The idea of not finding the Zodiac killer haunts Graysmith more than the crime scene images he thumbs through at night. At one point during the film, he confesses to Toschi that he won’t stop until he can look the Zodiac in the eye and conclusively say he’s found the killer. The media, the citizens of San Francisco, the police commission, and Graysmith all need answers.

Yet Fincher’s narrative also lives firmly within the realm of uncertainty. With one exception, each of the film’s “Zodiac” characters—physical or voice—are all played by different actors (four total). Not only do we not know who the Zodiac is, we also do not know which appearances in the film are genuine. Actor John Carroll Lynch, the man chosen to perform the role of Arthur Leigh Allen, plays none of these “Zodiacs.” There are also sequences within the film where individuals claiming to be the Zodiac (or having seen the Zodiac) are scrutinized. So while Fincher may very well sympathize with Graysmith’s conclusions, there is a sense that nothing is certain. The damning evidence simply doesn’t exist.

Fincher captures this ambiguity with a darkening lens. Wide angles reinforce the smallness of the characters. The high contrast blacks and defining shadows produce an atmospheric claustrophobia. One gets the sense, visually speaking, that there is no way to definitively divine truth. Evil is around us, and it’s about to swallow us whole.

As the film comes to a close, Graysmith discovers what he believes is a break in the case. Waking up Toschi in the middle of the night, Graysmith claims to know the identity of the Zodiac. As the two men sit down in a diner to talk, the former cartoonist, now sleuth, lays out his arguments for Allen’s guilt.

Toschi pushes back, his procedural mind probing for judicial potholes. The camera is now focused on the character’s faces—in the sparingly used Fincher close up. Their intimate features bleed through the screen. Graysmith says, “Just because you can’t prove it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

Toschi pauses. “Easy there, Dirty Harry.”

When the System Works

What I didn’t get during my first viewing, but now realize, is that Zodiac is best understood when it’s examined through the lens of society’s elusive relationship with truth and justice. Fincher evaluates contemporary society’s obsession with certainty, by highlighting our willingness to shed the bounds of due process to obtain it—then, in turn, contributing our actions back onto the plight of justice itself. We desire an officer more like Bullitt and less like his inspiration, Toschi. Truth can be found. Evil can be rooted out with the correct dose of technology, paperwork, and library books. There must be a way out of the surrounding darkness.

At first, Graysmith looks to be the film’s champion. He did what the justice system could not. After the diner scene, Graysmith gets his chance to look Allen in the eye, convinced he has his man. It’s hard to argue with him, cinematically speaking. Allen views Graysmith with surprise; his facial expression is one of guilt and anxiety. Fincher even seems to commend him and his findings in the film’s final scene, where a witness from the first murder points out Allen in a photo lineup.

But despite this sympathy for Graysmith, Fincher’s real hero always resides with Toschi. His attentive investigation did not conclude in a sentencing, but he allowed the justice system to do its grueling, biting work. A guilty man may not have landed in prison, but an innocent man did not either. The adage “Innocent until proven guilty” still stands. The audience (even Fincher) may believe Allen is the killer, but believing and proof are two wildly different conclusions. Toschi allows due process to operate on its own—even though this ultimately means Allen walks.

In this way, as it celebrates its tenth anniversary, Zodiac is one of the better—if not best—crime dramas in post-9/11 American cinema. Amid our current civic landscape, Fincher’s masterpiece might even be the defining film of the now teenage millennium. In a world where swift retaliation is welcomed over careful, nuanced investigation, Zodiac blurs the line between our knowledge of guilt and innocence, good and evil.

Our political climate, along with endless social commentary, pushes our moral inclinations to draw strictly black and white lines. Shock entertainment and catchy headlines garner more attention than well-nuanced arguments. As if we’ve been preconditioned, we as an audience do not want to know who “might” be the Zodiac murderer (one could also insert any recent scandal here as well). No, we just want him at the end of Callahan’s Magnum.

But Zodiac envisions another, if no less comfortable, way. A way that is willing to risk quick justice in order to pursue a greater justice.

As Toschi leaves the diner following his final conversation with Graysmith, he walks across a dimly lit San Francisco street. The camera shot is now wide, Toschi nearly engulfed in the night’s darkness—Fincher foregoing the recent close-ups in the restaurant. The Zodiac case rests on his shoulders. It has weighed on Toschi since his arrival at the scene of the cab driver’s murder. He has a good idea who the Zodiac is, but he doesn’t possess the evidence needed to arrest him.

Yet, rather than allow himself to be squashed by the absence of light, he walks on.

The system worked.