Michelle McNamara’s only book was published after she died. She’d been working for years in the investigative pursuit of an uncaught, unidentified serial killer who’d terrorized California decades before, and whose profile she’d helped raise when she published an article in 2013 dubbing him the Golden State Killer. When she died in 2016 from an accidental overdose, her manuscript for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer was still incomplete, and it was finished and published in February 2018 with help from friends and fellow journalists, including writers Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes as well as the comedian Patton Oswalt, Michelle’s widower. In April of that year, just two months after McNamara’s book debuted, authorities announced the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo as a suspect in the case. In June 2020, DeAngelo pleaded guilty, and that August, he was sentenced to life without parole. Just like that, the Golden State Killer was behind bars.
It seems like the kind of thing you could only do in a movie: a dogged writer’s passion project leading inexorably to justice, the pursuit of truth finally realized not through the traditional criminal justice system but through sheer determination, belief, and commitment from a citizen who feels called to serve a greater good. It’s a good story, too. But it’s not what happened.
McNamara’s work was outstanding, and her attention to detail and ability to forge connections with victims and police officers got her closer than anyone else had come to catching the monster she referred to as GSK. But each investigative alley she walks in the book ends in frustration and failure, and the profiles and theories she assembled about the man whose identity she would never know were only accurate to the degree that they were coincidental with DeAngelo’s life and deeds. The killer was caught by law enforcement officers narrowing down his family tree through the use of online DNA databases that hadn’t existed when the murders happened, but that now, in the 21st century, were helping police turn up new suspects.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is still a fascinating and fantastic book, though, because it’s a document of McNamara’s attempt to reckon with the obsession that drives her. She’s drawn to cold cases and awful crimes because she wants to solve the mystery. It doesn’t lessen the book’s impact or worth to realize that she doesn’t get her man. In fact, it makes it more potent, and poignant. Here is someone doing their best to get something right, sending up a howl, hoping against hope that they’re on the right track.
David Fincher’s Zodiac is that kind of movie. There is no hero here, only a villain. There is no victory, only refuge. There is no certainty, only hope. Hope that the evil you’ve been chasing has been defeated. Hope that you didn’t make a mistake. Hope that you got it right.
Part of what keeps the movie in this zone of uncertainty is the fact that it doesn’t have a traditional main character. Although it’s based on the book of the same name by Robert Graysmith, who appears here played by Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s not solely Graysmith’s story. Huge chunks of the plot involve things that Graysmith the character doesn’t know about, and that would only be revealed to Graysmith the author in time, like the staging of the murders that drive the plot, or the spiraling investigations of regional law enforcement officers across the San Francisco Bay Area who are trying to determine the identity of the man leaving dead bodies in public places, sending threatening letters to newspapers, and calling himself the Zodiac.
Nor does the film have an easy, predictable structure. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt go to great lengths to ground every scene in fact, so instead of a streamlined approach to “cops hunt a killer,” we get the fragmented, boxy, unwieldy experience of “killer terrorizes a state, populace crawls along under cloud of dread.” It’s like actually living through the murders. Fincher’s original cut (available on Blu-ray and DVD) features a two-minute montage in the middle of music and radio banter set to a black screen, allowing the viewer to feel the weight and passage of time, along with the mood of what it must have been like to literally live in the dark and wonder if the killer would strike again, like almost no other movie. You do not bend this film to your will; it bends you.
Loosely, here’s what happens: in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a man calling himself the Zodiac commits a number of random murders throughout the Bay Area, occasionally sending letters to outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle in which he claims credit for the killings and threatens even more. Robert Graysmith is a cartoonist at the Chronicle when this is happening, and he’s drawn to the mystery and finds himself ever hungrier to figure out who the Zodiac is. Graysmith’s colleague, crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), is initially skeptical of the Zodiac’s skills or prowess but soon comes to be haunted by open threats on his own life. Meanwhile, the criminal investigation crosses multiple jurisdictions, with SFPD detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) leading things in the city while coordinating with Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) in Vallejo and Ken Narlow (Donal Logue) in Napa, two of the rural locations where the Zodiac struck. As Toschi et al. work the evidence and continue to come up short, Graysmith starts investigating on his own, trying to piece together the puzzle.
That’s 180 words of description, and it probably looks pretty straightforward. But the film is so much more than that, almost unquantifiably more. Fincher returns several times to scenes of the Zodiac committing murders (or attempting to), from the murder of the young Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau that opens the film, to the daylight lakeside stabbing of Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard, to the shooting of cab driver Paul Stine, and more. All real people, real tragedies, just like everything else here. The filmmaking is expertly tuned and incredibly tense in these scenes—the horror of the stabbing of Hartnell and Shepard is truly gruesome, not for reasons of gore, but for the blunt and unflinching way Fincher depicts their worsening situation. These scenes are elegies, a chance not just to practice craft or even entertain but to use art to transmit something about existence to the viewer. The skill, the utter control, that Fincher brings to the material lets him be graphic without being sensationalistic and mournful without being maudlin. Fincher had worked with these themes before—think of the ticking clock of Se7en, the existential breakdown in reality of The Game—but never so masterfully.
Those acts of brutality are also the only time in the film we see a real resolution, or at least a consequence. Every scene that involves the investigation, whether it’s Graysmith or the cops, ends in speculation. There’s a tense confrontation in which Toschi, Armstrong, and Mulanax interview a potential suspect named Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch, doing outstanding, understated work). Allen’s answers to their questions grow increasingly damning, especially when he drops the non sequitur, “The knives I had in my car with the blood on them? That blood came from a chicken that I killed for dinner.” Everything about him seems to scream that he’s the killer (or at least that he’s guilty of some other things), but the police don’t have enough to make a move against him. We get no confirmation, no follow-up interview, no showdown. Nothing.
Toward the end of the film, in a late-night diner conversation with Toschi, Graysmith posits that Allen was likely the killer, laying out his reasons in a way that seems convincing. But as Toschi points out, it only seems that way: it’s all circumstantial, all too easy to shade with doubt. “I’m not asking you as a cop,” Graysmith says, to which Toschi replies, “But I am a cop. I can’t prove this.” There’s a heaviness in his words, a tacit acknowledgment that he knows his hands are tied. Graysmith then says, “Just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it’s not true.” And that’s the heart of it all: it does and it doesn’t. Because yes, Graysmith (the character, as well as the author) makes a convincing argument that this shifty man who made both strangers and acquaintances uncomfortable, this Arthur Leigh Allen, was the one who’d terrorized their city for years. But the statement itself is also an acknowledgment of that last uncrossable chasm that sometimes stretches between belief and knowledge. It can all make sense; it can all feel right; it can even be the closest anyone’s ever come; but there’s no way to know, ever. And you have to live with that.
There’s a dreamlike quality to Zodiac that makes it endlessly compelling, and dreamlike in the way the movies of David Lynch seem to keep replaying and reworking themselves in your head even after you’re finished watching them. It’s a chance to hold the puzzle box up to the light one more time, knowing that some of the pieces are missing but determined to see if you can turn nonsense into sense anyway. Emily VanDerWerff, the Vox critic, summed up this Lynchian atmosphere nicely when she said that while Lynch works from a framework of rules, “they are not rules that we can comprehend. … There’s always a vague sense that someone somewhere could make sense of what’s happening if you could just ask the right questions of the right person.”
Fincher’s film is all about that search: for the right questions, the right person. Graysmith grows increasingly frantic throughout, alienating his wife and children, losing the respect of his peers, and angering the law enforcement officials who either want him to clear out so they can work or who just want to move on and forget the whole thing. Even when he comes to what he believes is the right conclusion, the film stops just shy of claiming that he’s correct. Rather, it presents a kaleidoscopic view of what can happen to people when something like this rips through their lives. It turns them into devices of pure desire: focused only on the hunt, unable to do anything else, determined to uncover a truth they believe they are destined to find. Michelle McNamara would understand.
Hunting for more serial killers on Plex?