What Made ‘Zodiac’ Intimidating 10 Years Ago Are The Same Qualities That Make It A Classic Now

I didn’t see Zodiac when it was released in theaters 10 years ago (exactly 10 years ago today, in fact). You probably didn’t, either. This is not a criticism; it’s a fact. Zodiac, director David Fincher’s fifth movie overall, and first since Panic Room five years earlier, was not a hit. It made $84 million worldwide, including a meager $33 million in the United States, against a $65 million budget. In its opening weekend, Zodiac finished $30-something million behind Wild Hogs — yes, the movie where Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence, and William H. Macy form a motorcycle gang — and barely beat out Ghost Rider in its third week of release. It was out of theaters eight weeks later.

Honestly, it’s surprising Zodiac even made that much, and lasted that long, because it was never designed to be a hit. And that’s what makes it not only Fincher’s best film, but one of the best films, for any director, of the century.

If David Fincher is known for one thing — besides directing Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” music video, obviously — it’s endings. “What’s in the box?!” from Seven. “You met me at a very strange time in my life” from Fight Club. “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be” from The Social Network. I’ve seen Zodiac three times, and I had no memory of how it ended before watching it again. That’s because Zodiac doesn’t really have an ending. The credits roll, but there’s no iconic closing line, or Beatles song.

Instead, it concludes with a two-person scene between Zodiac Killer survivor Mike Mageau (who appeared in the film’s chilling opening, but not since; he’s now played by Westworld‘s Jimmi Simpson) and a police officer. Mike is asked to identify the man who shot him decades prior — he points at Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), the primary suspect in the case. We want Allen to be the villain, and for Zodiac to end with his arrest, because that’s how movies are supposed to work; the good guys win, the bad guys get their comeuppance. Real life isn’t so tidy, though: The only jail time Allen served was in the mid-1970s, for molesting children. The Zodiac Killer — who murdered at least five people in Northern California in the late 1960s — was never caught.

How do you make a movie about a serial killer without the serial killer? That was Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s problem while working on Zodiac, and they solved it by focusing on the characters, rather than the murders. And through earnest cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), stressed-out police officers David Toschi and William Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards), and fast-talking journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), the ever-methodical Fincher channeled his obsessiveness. The director is famous for his multiple takes — he told Entertainment Weekly, “The first day of production in San Francisco we shot 56 takes of Mark and Jake, and it’s the 56th take that’s in the movie” — and going over the same thing, time and time again, is what cops and reporters do. No detail is too small, no fact can be checked too much. Fincher, who described Zodiac on the DVD commentary as “not a serial killer movie, it’s a newspaper story,” can relate.

Of course, a lot of people aren’t interested in newspaper stories. They want violence and resolutions. Can you blame them? In the wrong hands, Zodiac could have been tedious, boring, and generic, like so many cheap thrillers in Nic Cage’s recent filmography. But Fincher is in such control of every scene, whether it’s the Zodiac calling Jim Dunbar’s morning show or Gyllenhaal’s breathless descent into the basement, that it’s fascinating to observe. The suspense never lets up, despite the nearly three-hour running time, and as Roger Ebert pointed out in his four-star review, “What makes Zodiac authentic is the way it avoids chases, shootouts, grandstanding, and false climaxes, and just follows the methodical progress of police work.” I won’t make the over-used claim that Zodiac was “ahead of its time,” but it did precede our culture’s recent true crime obsession, including Serial and Making a Murderer, by nearly a decade. Fincher has less space than a 12-episode podcast or 10-episode TV show, so he packs every oft-sinister frame with meaning, often with insert shots, where the audience gets a close-up look at the documents that define so much of the Zodiac investigation.

An investigation, mind you, over a never-captured killer who worked in puzzles. Puzzles are inherently infuriating, especially when you’re not allowed to solve them, and, in Zodiac‘s case, you know no one else will, either. That’s not an easy sell, not when the sublimely over-the-top 300 is playing in the next theater. (As Box Office Mojo wrote at the time, “Distributor Paramount Pictures pitched creepiness in Zodiac‘s television ads, hampered by vagueness to disguise the fact that the movie itself is more a sprawling drama than a thriller.” Word-of-mouth praise and the “cult classic” label came later.)

Another thing that worked against Zodiac‘s box-office success was the cast. That might sound odd, considering the involvement of Iron Man and the Hulk, but Marvel A-listers Downey, Jr. and Ruffalo weren’t exactly established box office draws at the time. Zodiac came out after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (and, um, The Shaggy Dog), but Downey’s comeback wasn’t complete until Iron Man a year later, while Ruffalo was still identified as Jennifer Garner’s love interest in 13 Going on 30 or that guy from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jake Gyllenhaal — who’s at his best playing vulnerable, emotionally raw characters, like Graysmith (who chose the case over his wife) and Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler — was a legitimate star, but the rest of the cast is a roster of character actors, including Edwards, Lynch, Brian Cox, Donal Logue, and Philip Baker Hall. They became their roles and blended into the environment, while remaining memorable enough that you never forgot who they’re supposed to be.

Zodiac reminds me of a better version of the HBO miniseries The Night Of. (Before it turned into a disgusting foot drama, that is.) Basically, just the first magnificent episode, where we see every detail of Nasir “Naz” Khan’s night except for the one that matters: Did he murder Andrea Cornish? The Night Of isn’t interested in answering that question — it’s focused on the people who are trying to answer the question. The same is true of Zodiac, where we learn more about Robert Graysmith, David Toschi, and Paul Avery (and for that matter, David Fincher, who it’s worth mentioning grew up in the area that the Zodiac Killer haunted) than we do the titular boogieman, the one they’re all chasing. We don’t know who the murderer is, but we can instantly recall a cartoonist’s drink of choice. (“You wouldn’t make fun of it if you tried it.”)

The film isn’t one thing — it’s a patient procedural, it’s a monster movie, it’s a period piece, there’s even some pitch-black humor — and that’s a lot to process. Zodiac the movie is a lot like Zodiac the person: It begs to be solved, but still wants to remain mysterious. (No wonder Fincher noted at the time that “the studio is nervous” — big-budget studios don’t do mysterious.) In one of the killer’s last letters, he wrote, “I am waiting for a good movie about me.”

The only bad thing about Zodiac is that he got his wish.