Last night, I went to Camera Theatres to see the movie Zodiac. I love reading true crime, particularly about serial killers. But movies based on serial killers are usually gore-filled horror flicks, focusing on the killer; or gritty action films, with a sole trigger-happy cop looking for the killer and gunning down everyone in his way. They completely lose what I find so compelling in true crime books. Serial killer true crime is more like a mystery, a puzzle detectives have to put together without knowing the picture they’re looking for, and in the meantime, the whole process is complicated by misinformation, miscommunication and lots of false leads. True crime focuses not on the killer, but on his victims and the personalities of the people trying to solve the case. Zodiac is the first movie I’ve seen that I could fairly describe as true crime, and well done true crime at that.

I had also read Robert Graysmith’s definitive book on the Zodiac killer, which this movie is based on. The Zodiac killer is one of the few serial killers who’s never been caught, even though he made a particular effort to identify himself, in phone calls he made to the police after committing his crimes, and in codes and evidence he sent to local newspapers. After killing a cab driver in San Francisco, an APB went out for him almost immediately, and the SFPD actually saw him, in bloody clothes, walking past and didn’t stop him. However, he also seemed to stop killing shortly afterward, so there was no further evidence (other than letters being sent to newspapers) to help find him.

Besides telling the story, Zodiac also did a wonderful job in capturing the character of the Bay Area. All too often, San Francisco (and its surroundings) are caricatured as a hippie homo freak fest or as a Golden-Gate-Bridge-with-pretty-Victorian-houses backdrop. And while that does exist, there’s a whole lot of something in between and that’s where Zodiac was set. It showed the rural North Bay, the industrial East Bay, the cheap rental housing houseboats, the incompetent SFPD, the construction of the Transamerican Building (which took place in that period,) and oh so much more. The actor who played Melvin Belli was so much like the real local flamboyant attorney that I thought Melvin Belli had come back from the dead to play himself. Just from each setting, I could tell you which part of San Francisco the major characters in the movie lived in, as if their character hadn’t already telegraphed that already.

In particular I loved the character of journalist Paul Avery, as portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. Incredibly Downey encapsulated the personality of so many of the San Francisco newspaper journalists I’ve encountered: somewhat sleazy, viciously territorial, standoffishly twitchy, recklessly courageous, and overall, smart. He should have been the main character in the movie, and, clearly, as the movie shows, Robert Graysmith agrees. But sadly, in the real story, and the true-to-life movie, the stressed out Paul Avery dissolves into an alcoholic, druggy daze. So it’s left to Robert Graysmith to carry the rest of the movie. Goody-two-shoes Graysmith is nowhere near as exciting as Avery, but at least he is obsessed enough to try to harass detectives in order to collect the information he needs for his book.

The end of true crime book, especially after the killer has been caught, is always the dullest. Mostly it’s about the tedium of the court case, and the posturing of the defense attorneys. Sometimes a Charles Manson will carve a swastika into his forehead, or one of the Hillside Stranglers will feign multiple personality disorder, but there’s no mystery left on how it’s going to end up. Near the end of Zodiac, we have such a moment, as Graysmith corners David Toschi, the key homicide detective on the Zodiac case, and chatters on for several minutes, to connect all the evidence together: it’s one of those book moments that doesn’t translate so beautifully into film. However, the movie makers also created “bookends” that make even this work, as a victim who appeared at the very beginning of the film before the title even came up, reappears at the end to identify the Zodiac killer, or at least, the same man Graysmith asserts did it.

Zodiac is an excellent film. If you enjoy true crime in any way, I highly recommend it.

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