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As The Batman broods its way through theaters, this week seemed as good a time as any to revisit David Fincher’s historical drama Zodiac, from which Paul Dano’s twisted Riddler takes inspiration.

Yep, still good!

It’s 1969, and the San Francisco Chronicle begins to receive encrypted letters from a killer calling himself “Zodiac.” A manhunt ensues, and the film follows three men who become in some way or another hopelessly fixated on solving the case: snarky crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), seen-it-all police inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and socially-awkward cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who would go on to write the two books on which the film is based.  

At its core, Zodiac is a crime procedural. We see weary men rifling through cluttered archival boxes, arguing minutiae over weird-looking drinks long into the night. But Fincher isn’t merely enamored with process. Zodiac contains two key features that distinguish it from the also great, similarly gumption-extolling All the President’s Men and Spotlight

One is the elliptical, inconclusive trajectory of the case. Though Graysmith and the movie explicitly point to Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), the Zodiac killings were never officially solved, no culprit tried or convicted. Professionals burn out and drop off as the case limps on over the course of years while life gets in the way of, if not justice, at least simple closure. The extended time frame lends Zodiac a low-key existential horror only hinted at by Morgan Freeman’s defeated melancholy in Fincher’s earlier, expressionistic Seven. Released in 2007, Zodiac arrived at the perfect moment to capture an ambient sense of dread as America plodded through its War on Terror with nary a WMD to show for it. 

The other is that the police were not chasing a super genius. That investigators are thwarted throughout the movie doesn’t speak to any innate cunning on the killer’s part, but rather failures of communication between departments in different cities and contentions over circumstantial evidence. 

There’s a sad humanity in the way the characters in Zodiac bond over their shared obsession as it slowly erodes their relationships, careers, and lives. At one point in The Batman, lone honest cop James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) quietly observes that he doesn’t know his costumed ally’s name, speaking to a remoteness inherent to that film that hobbles its narrative possibilities. For all its self-serious gravitas, The Batman can’t include a sequence in which Gordon visits an alcoholic Bruce Wayne wasting away in a scuzzy houseboat, as Zodiac does, because The Batman is populated with archetypes in place of humans. Messy, broken people make for compelling procedurals but are perhaps too alienating for superhero stories. Even the villainous Penguin was denied cigars, to Colin Farrell’s disappointment. 

In my review of The Batman, I mentioned Gotham Central and its debt to Homicide: Life on the Street. That show has an episode called “Three Men and Adena,” in which two detectives unsuccessfully attempt to wring a confession out of a man suspected of murdering an 11-year-old girl. The majority of the episode takes place in a sparse police interrogation room, a cost-effective production decision that nonetheless imbues it with a brutal sense of claustrophobia. Like Zodiac, it’s interested in the fine details of the procedural and the infrequently acknowledged nature of uncertainty.

Zodiac (2007)

Runtime: 157 minutes

MPA Rating: R

Streaming: Available to rent

Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....