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Zodiac (2007) is David Fincher’s best film to date. His pacing has never been so tight, the sense of time and place has never been more tangible, and the answers to the mystery don’t come easy, if it all. Most of the time it feels as though Fincher steps back from making a “good movie” and settles instead for a mediocre one. Like Christopher Nolan, Fincher sticks to his niche and panders unapologetically to his fan base while all the while congratulating himself in his own work on being a “serious auteur”. Zodiac is remarkable because Fincher is more invested in the story of the film than in self promotion or half-hearted direction.

In many respects there is no narrative solution to Zodiac. In a film so caught up in procedure, detail and plot this is almost extraordinary. Zodiac resolves itself with a question regarding the human compulsion to bear witness. Why must we know? Why must things be seen to be believed? These two fundamental concepts go to the very heart of spectatorship, the essence of watching movies.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith is the most complex of audience surrogates. Like any cinephile, Graysmith must see, must know, to the extent that the very quest to “bear witness” becomes the defining attribute of his existence. In Fincher’s film the Zodiac killer is cinema. It may be a disturbing idea, but that’s the point. Creativity and destruction, problems and solutions cannot exist as singular entities. Each is reliant upon the other to give itself meaning and purpose. So surely this is true of the cinema and the spectator as well.

The high-concepts of Zodiac are hardly the only redeeming facets of this contemporary classic. Long before they donned suits of armor, capes, and green skin Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo were actors. Their performances, as well as the rest of the ensemble’s, are career highs. Every performer seems to have tapped into the same energy and sparked a rapid chain reaction. There are no bad performances at all in Zodiac.

But we, the audience, cannot deny the reason why we seek out this type of content in our cinema; schadenfreude. I revisited Zodiac due to my recent experience watching the Netflix docuseries Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer (2021). Americans love their serial killers, we thrive on schadenfreude.