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Almost a year ago, I finally got around to seeing Se7en. I called it a masterpiece then, and I stand by that statement now. That film is a sublime meditation on the subject of evil, as personified by a destructive and unpredictable force who was terrifying throughout the film in spite of his scarce screen time. More than that, the movie didn’t portray evil as a thing to be defeated — in fact, John Doe’s endgame in that movie was ultimately self-defeat — but a thing to live through. It’s a movie that delves into very difficult subject matter without the slightest bit of sugar-coating, and it made me appreciate David Fincher all the more as a filmmaker.

But little did I know that Se7en was just a warm-up. For just over a decade later, Fincher released Zodiac.

In the latter film, Fincher portrays the Zodiac Killer as a faceless terror every bit as insane, homicidal, and elusive as John Doe. Even better, Fincher portrays the Zodiac murders with the same unflinching grittiness that served him so well in Se7en. Yet the Zodiac Killer trumps John Doe in that he remains anonymous and faceless throughout the entire running time. What’s more, while John Doe was out on what he perceived to be a kind of holy crusade, the Zodiac murders appear to be ends in themselves.

Yet Zodiac trumps its predecessor from the get-go with one simple fact: It’s actually based on a true story. With Se7en, you could maybe console yourself with the knowledge that it’s just a work of fiction and no madman could actually do all of this. With Zodiac, even before the cameras roll, you know that all of this is real and that these senseless murders actually happened. We know that despite law enforcement’s best efforts, the Zodiac killer was never caught or identified. Hell, he’s still out there right now somewhere, assuming he hasn’t died in the years since.

Now let’s look at the other side of the equation. First among our leads is Robert Downey Jr. in the role of… well, he’s pretty much playing himself, really. Yes, his character is a crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle — name of Paul Avery — but RDJ is still playing a snarky alcoholic with a penchant for pissing everyone off. It’s a small wonder that RDJ was cast in this role, given that the film came out right on the cusp of his comeback from being a tabloid punching bag. But I digress.

Paul Avery is a very tenacious reporter, and he’s shown risking life and limb to get any scoop on the Zodiac story. All the same, it’s made clear that he isn’t interested in the case for altruistic reasons. When the Zodiac murders are unfolding, Avery refers to the killer as a “latent homosexual” multiple times, presumably to make the story even more sensational and to sell more papers. After the case gone cold and Avery leaves the Chronicle, he brushes Zodiac off as yesterday’s news. For me, this latter point is the more important. I’ll explain why in a minute.

Next up is Mark Ruffalo as Inspector David Toschi. For the intents and purposes of this movie, he’s the one who takes point on the Zodiac case while the killings are underway. Through his eyes, we see all the bureaucratic red tape, the bickering over jurisdiction, the trading of favors, the debates over evidence reliability, and all the other time-consuming headaches that go into conducting a murder investigation through legal channels. That isn’t to say that the film promotes vigilantism, however. Fincher doesn’t seem to frame the police as inefficient because the system is broken, but because the system is run by human beings. Fallible and confused men who are doing the best they can to see justice done with a huge pile of prints, handwriting samples, and witness testimonies that may or may not be usable. So the case grows cold and Toschi essentially gives up. He’s spent enough time and trouble chasing Zodiac that he can’t bring himself to worry about it any more, especially since so many other murders have been crossing his desk in the time since.

(Side note: Though Ruffalo and RDJ each got a ton of screen time, they got maybe three scenes together. As someone who’s already bought my Avengers ticket, I admit I was a touch disappointed at that.)

Last but not least among our leads is Jake Gyllenhaal, here playing Robert Graysmith (who wrote the nonfiction book that this movie is based on). The thing about Graysmith is that he’s quite literally a Boy Scout (a first-class Eagle Scout, actually). He’s very intellectually curious and he’ constantly trying to do the right thing. What’s more is that as a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, he spends the first half of the movie on the periphery of the Zodiac case. He hears everything from Avery and from Toschi, but he’s not in any position to actually do anything about it, much as he wants to. He isn’t actually able to start his own investigation until the Zodiac case is roughly four years old, since no one else cares enough to get in his way. Yet paradoxically, many of Graysmith’s difficulties stem from the fact that nobody wants to waste the effort in helping him solve a years-old and apparently unsolvable case.

Another character who needs mentioning is Melanie — Graysmith’s girlfriend and eventual wife — played by Chloe Sevigny. Here’s a woman who vividly remembers what it was like to life in fear of the Zodiac, and she’s eager to put those days behind her. Yet at the same time, she loves Graysmith, she knows that he won’t be able to live with himself until Zodiac is caught, and it’s safe to say that on some level she wants Zodiac behind bars as well. But not at the cost of her family’s safety. There’s a lot of inner conflict in this character, which makes her a great sounding board for Graysmith’s escalating obsession with solving the Zodiac case.

In Se7en, the central question was “How can we keep on living in a world where evil constantly exists?” In Zodiac, these four characters wrestle with a similar question: “How do we pick our battles?” For Avery, the answer is to keep on going until he can no longer profit from it personally. Melanie draws the line at the point where she and her family are seriously in harm’s way. Toschi follows the Zodiac case where the most solid evidence leads, which implies that he only fights those battles he stands a chance at winning.

Compare all of that to Graysmith, who charges into the Zodiac case with everything he’s got. And it comes at a heavy mental and emotional cost. He becomes so obsessed with the Zodiac that in one very cleverly staged sequence, he starts growing paranoid that a seemingly harmless man is the killer himself. He has become Maslow’s hammer, unknowingly treating the Zodiac case as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. He’s so busy hunting down a boogeyman that he’s forgotten to live for himself. And why? The answer he gives is that “no one else will.” In truth, countless reporters and detectives before him tried and failed, back when Graysmith was just a lowly cartoonist who couldn’t do anything about it. So now it’s his turn.

If it sounds like I’m diving the movie into two halves, that’s because it is. The movie takes place over several decades, with frequent and lengthy time jumps between scenes. Though Fincher does a very good job at keeping the narrative cohesive, there are still a few time jumps that are very jarring. The four-year time gap is perhaps the worst offender, as it marks the exact spot when Toschi and Avery pretty much abandon the Zodiac case, leaving Graysmith to pick up the baton. And from that moment on, it’s a very different movie.

That said, I was rather fond of some measures that Fincher took to show the passage of time. A very effective time-lapse shot of the Transatlantic Pyramid’s construction comes to mind, and changing the San Francisco Chronicle’s interior paint from yellow to blue was a neat touch. I also couldn’t help noticing that the movie got progressively less dark and gritty as the timeline progressed.

Finally, a quick word about the score: Though it was by no means bad, it made me lament that Fincher hadn’t started collaborating with Trent Reznor or Atticus Ross yet. I’d love to have heard their score for this one.

Comparing Zodiac to Se7en is a very hard choice for me. Zodiac meditated on the subject of evil with a lot more depth (possibly because it’s half an hour longer), but it didn’t have the same constant forward momentum that Se7en did (due to Zodiac‘s frequent time jumps and, again, that extra half-hour). All told, both movies work masterfully as companion pieces while being true cinematic gems in their own individual right. These are both wonderfully acted, superbly written, and exquisitely made, further establishing David Fincher as one of the finest directors currently working.

When all is said and done, I highly recommend watching Zodiac, but only after watching Se7en. If I had seen this film without prior experience of Se7en under my belt, I have absolutely no idea what I’d make of this. But reading this entry, I’m sure you might have guessed that.

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