David Fincher has a long resume of successful, influential and critically-acclaimed films. From 1995’s Seven to 1999’s Fight Club to 2014’s Gone Girl, Fincher has created a body of work that defines his talent as a director and writer, but none so much as his most underrated film, the 2007 thriller Zodiac.
It just so happens that Zodiac, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this month, is also the best film Fincher has ever made.
This can be taken as a strong sentiment. Movies are a subjective experience and while Zodiac may be my personal favorite, there’s no reason The Social Network can’t be yours. When talking about this piece, many Polygon writers and editors jumped in to defend what they believed to be Fincher’s best work.
As I said to them, and as I’ll say to you, your favorite Fincher movie may be completely different, but Zodiac is objectively his best movie.
Let me explain.
When Zodiac was released in 2007, not many people ventured out to watch it. The movie only made $33 million in the United States — on a $65 million budget — and didn’t do much better overseas. It was considered a financial flop for Warner Bros. Pictures, especially in comparison to Fincher’s next project, The Social Network. Also, unlike The Social Network — which many would regard as Fincher’s best — Zodiac wasn’t nominated for any Academy Awards. It didn’t really pick up any kind of prestige that The Social Network did.
Why is Zodiac Fincher’s best movie then? For one thing, it’s missing a key Fincher ingredient and it works to the film’s advantage: there’s no ending.
Think of some of Fincher’s most notable films. Fight Club ends with Marla and the Narrator holding hands in an office building, watching as explosions occur across the city. The Pixies “Where is my Mind?” plays in the background as the Narrator turns to Marla and simply states, “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”
The scene most people remember from Seven is Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills’ infamous “What’s in the box?” moment just before the film wraps, but the movie actually ends with Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset confirming he’ll be around for a while, even though he was on the verge of retirement. It’s a powerful moment that recalls the trials and tribulations Somerset and Mills went through and reminds us that we can never truly escape who we are.
Zodiac doesn’t have an ending ... per se. Of course, it literally comes to an end, but there’s no grand statement. There’s no cathartic wrap-up. We’re not left with any kind of just ending. It’s the anti-Fincher ending, but it’s also the most powerful. The Zodiac killer was never actually discovered in real life and Fincher ends on a bit of a nothing note, relaying the same kind of discouragement that many people within Northern California and the detectives who dedicated their lives to the case felt.
It’s because of that honest translation of failure and discouragement that Zodiac’s ending works as well as it does. It’s one of his most earnest and it feels like Fincher was just as personally invested in the case as the reporters and detectives who were involved first-hand.
The lack of an ending isn’t accidental, and it’s Fincher’s commitment to not providing any kind of wrap-up, despite knowing the audience needs it, that makes it strong as it is. It’s provocative, unsettling and, perhaps most terrifying, very real. As the conversation between a police officer and the sole survivor of a Zodiac killer attack wraps up with an accusation against an individual thought to be the assailant — Arthur Leigh Allen — the lack of justice is palpable.
The brilliance of having a killer who’s not really there
The Zodiac killer was never identified — and there weren’t many survivors of his attacks. As such, he was never really seen and that means Fincher was able to craft a true-crime story in the same way Alfred Hitchcock framed a horrific tale of murder. There is a horror element that underlines the entire movie and that doesn’t disappear even when the film ends.
It is still the only movie Fincher has ever made that feels like a straight up thriller, as opposed to a drama with thriller elements mixed in. It’s also, and this is very important, the only movie Fincher has made that has actually scared me. Fincher didn’t set out to make a horror movie, but the tone of the film is overwhelmingly eerie and falls into the horror subgenre.
But it never comes off as campy. Fincher isn’t using the Zodiac killer as a way to scare his audience, but he lets the chilling elements of the crime speak for itself. Fincher didn’t go in trying to make a horror movie about a serial killer, but used the brutal honesty and fear surrounding real life crime speak for itself.
Zodiac sticks with you because of that, too. This isn’t the fictional story dreamt up by a couple of writers to scare audiences. The fact that the Zodiac killer is a real life boogeymen — someone that exists, killing people, but has never actually been seen — adds to the fear.
Zodiac was a learning experience that actually worked
Fincher is an expert craftsman, and with Zodiac it seemed like he discovered a new side of his directing abilities. Fincher embraced working with a similar tone — eerie and macabre — but leaned into the thriller aspect more than anything else, and the result was one of the most terrifying movies of the past decade. Techniques from Zodiac can be seen in Gone Girl, Fincher’s critically-acclaimed thriller from 2014.
Zodiac was a learning experience for Fincher and it’s obvious in the films that followed. Even in The Social Network, Fincher learned to not exaggerate the human drama beyond believable. Instead, he leant into the natural drama the story had and let that speak for itself. The story of how Facebook was founded is invigorating in itself, and while Fincher’s fingerprint can clearly be seen, the human drama is where the film thrives.
You can see Fincher toying with new storytelling techniques in Zodiac,and as the years go on, he’s come to rely on the lessons learned through that experience in the rest of his work. Even his directing on House of Cards’ pilot episode has hints of Zodiac woven throughout it.
I started this essay by saying that Zodiac wasn’t just my favorite Fincher movie, it was also his best. I’d like to add an addendum to that; it’s also his most important. Zodiac starred Jake Gyllenhall in between a series of odd jobs and Robert Downey, Jr. before the Marvel fame redefined him as an actor.
Zodiac took a lot of chances, and to Warner Bros.’ credit, the studio took just as many by producing it. The film many not have been the most successful, nor is it Fincher’s claim to fame, but there’s no movie in his portfolio that better exemplifies what makes him the incredible director that he is.
As Zodiac turns 10, it’s a pleasure to be able to look back and examine Fincher’s entire body of work: seeing where he came from and where he is now. Zodiac may not be your favorite Fincher movie, and that’s okay; film is subjective.
But Zodiac is unequivocally his best film.