There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
Zodiac, a 2007 true-crime procedural about the San Francisco reporters and police detectives who spent years trying to figure out the identity of “the Zodiac killer,” a serial murderer who taunted the public and the authorities with cryptic clues, beginning in summer 1969. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist and puzzle enthusiast who becomes fascinated with the Zodiac mystery, and works with jaded writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and dogged cop Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) to help narrow down the list of possible suspects. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt and director David Fincher recreate some of the Zodiac crimes in horrific detail, and they include multiple nerve-jangling scenes of the investigators confronting potential killers. But this is more a movie about the punishing grind of putting a case together, set against the backdrop of a changing 1970s California.
Why watch now?
Because the second season of David Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter is now available to stream.
Though British playwright Joe Penhall is credited as the creator of Mindhunter — and was the first season’s head writer — the project actually originated with Charlize Theron, who brought in David Fincher as a producer, and recommended Penhall. During the long development process, both Penhall and star Holt McCallany have said that the notoriously fussy Fincher began to mold the show more to his sensibility, reworking the scripts and directing four of the first season’s 10 episodes himself. In movies like Seven, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl, Fincher has put his own spin on the crime genre, starting with the moody style of classic noir and adding an obsessive attention to the mundane particulars of heinous murder. Mindhunter is very much in that classic Fincher mode.
McCallany and Jonathan Groff play cutting-edge FBI agents, working with a psychology professor (Anna Torv) to develop the art and science of “profiling” serial killers. The characters here are fictional, but they’re based on the actual men and women who in the late 1970s started interviewing murderers in jail to figure out what motivates criminals. Many of the cases covered in season 1 are taken from real FBI files. The particulars of season 2 are being kept tightly under wraps, but this eight-episode run does feature some Fincher-directed episodes, and some handled by genre movie specialists Andrew Dominik (best known for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and Carl Franklin (best known for One False Move). The new season also moves the story of these pioneering crimefighters to the early 1980s, as they apply their new techniques to pursuing whoever has been killing children in the Atlanta area.
In other words, Mindhunter will continue to resemble Zodiac, the crime picture and socio-ethnographic drama that for now is still Fincher’s masterpiece. Zodiac combines intense “you are there” moments with a more dispassionate docu-realism, as it evokes the shaggy fashions and urban blight of the early 1970s. The movie accumulates the mass of often-contradictory facts about the case, purposefully leaving viewers as baffled as the heroes about who might be slaughtering random Californians and leaving encrypted messages for the police and public to decipher. It’s a film so rich in period detail, and so clear-eyed about the realities of murder investigations, that it makes all the overheated serial-killer mystery-thrillers on TV and in multiplexes look like cartoons.
Who it’s for
True crime buffs and fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Want to watch Iron Man and the Hulk try to catch an infamous serial killer with Mysterio’s help? Zodiac’s the movie to see. The cast is one of the film’s main selling points: a pre-MCU Downey as the brash, cynical, alcoholic journalist, with Gyllenhaal as his quiet but persistent disciple, and Ruffalo as the genuinely decent cop who irritates his peers and stretches the limits of his jurisdiction in order to find the clues others missed. Add in Anthony Edwards as his good-guy partner, Brian Cox as self-promoting attorney Melvin Belli, and memorably disturbing roles for Charles Fleischer and John Carroll Lynch as potentially dangerous suspects, and Zodiac features a good mix of leading men and character actors, working well as an ensemble. The movie features some of these stars’ best work.
Zodiac does offer its own solution to the mystery of the real killer’s identity, but the answer is in no way definitive, and real-life Zodiac obsessives disagree vehemently about the movie’s conclusions. Overall, Fincher, Vanderbilt, and the cast make the most of their story’s ambiguities, depicting the Zodiac case and the lives of the people who tried to solve it as filled with riddles and nagging inconsistencies — always one key piece of evidence away from making sense.
Where to see it
Tubi. Seven, meanwhile, is on Hulu, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can be streamed on TNT’s website. Gone Girl is available to rent or buy from the usual digital retailers.