Film I LOVE That Scene Special Features

I LOVE that Scene: Is Robert Graysmith Playing the Most Dangerous Game?

What is I LOVE That Scene? It is a regular feature on our website in which we detail one single film scene we adore. Typically, the scenes we discuss are those that force us to involuntarily exclaim “I LOVE That Scene!” when they are brought up in conversation, thus the name. It is our intention to turn readers onto films through exposure to single scenes. Spoilers will be clearly indicated.

THE FILM: Zodiac (2007)

THE PLOT: Allegedly about the Zodiac killer who plagued Northern California in the late 1960s and early 70s, but is in fact totally not about that at all. In fact, it’s about the effects the case has on three men investigating the homicides: troubled, San Francisco Chronicle  columnist Paul Avery, Chronicle cartoonist-turned Zodiac obsessive Robert Graysmith, and investigating officer Dave Toschi.

David Fincher’s masterful film Zodiac is a film that can be described as a serial killer film, but calling it such does the film a disservice. There are murder scenes in the film, with violence that is less graphic that the Gialli-driven images that filled his earlier film, Seven and are more disturbing as a result. Yet, those occur early in the film, and most of the film is set after the crime spree has ceased. He creates a world tinted in a muted, yellow-tinged past, with uncertain, insidious shadows dominating much of the film’s scenes.

And this one of the film's least unsettling scenes.
And this one of the film’s least unsettling scenes.

The film’s score, including the unsettling use of the inherently creepy Donovan song, “Hudry Gurdy Man” and a score of strings that signal ever-increasing tension and drive adds to the idea that we have entered a world in which something is amiss and everything is unknowable.

Most of the narrative involves the attempts to unearth the killer’s identity (a quest any viewer who knows his Zodiac history will know is futile), and the detrimental effects this search has on their lives. For a film about a serial killer, Zodiac has a noticeable absence at its center: the lack of the serial killer’s identity. Instead, the film explores the paranoia and obsession that drives a culture in which the man walking towards you on a street may be a killer hiding in the dark.

Yes, this dark, for example.
Yes, this dark, for example.

It’s a film about the spellbinding, haunting aspects of an unsolved crime, but is not about the crime itself. It’s a film about characters who venture down a rabbit hole, chasing an elusive monster in the dark, and the tolls such a pursuit takes. For a film about obsession, it’s as much a film about what happens to the obsessed when their drives go unsatisfied.


THE CONTEXT OF THE SCENE: Zodiac is far and away my favorite of David Fincher’s filmography. It’s a lengthy film, clocking in at 157 minutes, yet it never drags or feels bogged down in investigative minutiae. Considering the film’s near OCD-tendency to time stamp practically every scene, it’s astonishing the film remains as compelling as it does. It’s also amazing how much tension Fincher can build when he wishes to do so.

My favorite scene is probably the film’s most playfully paranoid and tension-filled. Graysmith (played with an interesting mix of boy-scout innocence and haunted fixation by Jake Gyllenhaal) has come to believe the Zodiac may be a silent-film projectionist named Rick Marshall, and has managed to track down Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a Marshall associate who played the organ at the same silent movie house.

"They say celluloid can be used to strangle unsuspecting investigators. Shall we try it and see?"
“They say celluloid can be used to strangle unsuspecting investigators. Shall we try it and see?”

Graysmith comes to discuss some film advertisements he believes Marshall drew that match the Zodiac’s handwriting. As he discusses this possibility with Vaughn, Vaughn corrects him on a bit of misinformation: it was Vaughn, not Marshall, who drew the film ads. As Graysmith’s panic begins to rise, Vaughn suggests they go down to his basement (Zodiac’s letters implied he lived in a rare basement-including, California-home) to see if he can provide him with more information. What follows is one of most tension-filled, white-knuckle scenes in recent memory.


WHY I LOVE IT: I saw Zodiac in theatres with a friend of mine who was very disappointed that the film was less gory thriller and more grim meditation on the mental anguish that accompanies solving (or not solving) such a case. I understand his complaint, but I don’t agree that the film’s preferred focus is a problem. Zodiac is less violence driven than it is driven by the need to learn and understand why such a figure left such an indelible mark. However, I remember how I felt the first time I saw this scene. I felt my shoulders tense, my stomach lurch, and my pulse begin to accelerate. The fact that I was having this reaction was ridiculous. I knew no one knew the Zodiac’s true identity, and I knew Robert Graysmith went on to write a book about the case. As a result, he obviously wasn’t murdered in Bob Vaughn’s basement, but at that moment, my knowledge was irrelevant. I saw the scene through Gyllenhaal’s eyes, and my terror was equally palpable.

"Is there anything about this that doesn't seem to spell my doom?"
“Is there anything about this that doesn’t seem to spell my doom?”

What’s remarkable about the scene is the way it illustrates how paranoid and irrational Graysmith’s investigations have made him (the fact that he’s been receiving voiceless phone calls has only increased his anxiety). He constructs the most unsettling of scenarios based on little more than the most circumstantial and innocuous of information. The film is one of false assumptions and red herrings, and this scene is the epitome of those concepts.

The tension is driven by the fact that this case dominates every waking moment of Graysmith’s existence. Vaughn seems odd and certainly off-center, but the sinister qualities attributed to him stem from the panic increasingly dawning on Gyllenhaal’s innocent, boyish face (as well as the increasingly wobbly quality his voice takes on) and Fincher’s decision to continually conceal him in shadows but not from anything really stemming from Vaughn himself.

"Maybe these shadows are just hiding the delicious cake I baked for you. You don't know."
“Maybe these shadows are just hiding the delicious cake I baked for you. You don’t know.”

When Graysmith makes a run for the door, only to find it locked, we as viewers feel our own sense of panic and anxiety reaching a panicked crescendo. When Vaughn suddenly appears behind him, the enveloping darkness and the tense score make his entrance feel like a horror film scare, even though there is no evidence to back up this perception. As Graysmith flees from Vaughn’s house into a rain-soaked night, the audience shares his relief, but there really was nothing threatening in Vaughn’s dark basement. Instead, the reality is far more mundane. Vaughn’s a quirky, devoted cinephile, but not the menacing figure Graysmith’s over-active, increasingly driven, paranoid brain creates. It’s the monster hidden in the human mind that is often the most unsettling.It’s the tragic, pitiful revelation at the heart of Fincher’s film: obsession creates monsters where no monsters can be found.

How Robert Graysmith looks every few seconds.
How Robert Graysmith looks every few seconds.

The fact that Graysmith has become as entrenched in the Zodiac investigation as he appears to be borders on the absurd. He’s not a police officer or crime reporter. He’s merely a cartoonist who found himself as transfixed as everyone else by a serial killer that may be lurking just around the corner. However, whereas the rest of the world forgot about Zodiac as his murder spree stopped and his letter writing faded, Graysmith kept digging and pulling at scabs longed healed over within the general public. It’s remarkable how the film portrays neither his nor Officer Dave Toschi’s (played as a sympathetic everyman by Mark Ruffalo) desires to learn the Zodiac’s identity as particularly noble or moral. There’s no desire for justice or a well-defined sense of right and wrong. Both seem to regard the case as “the one that got away,” a mystery that should have been solvable but whose solution remains just out of reach. Fincher ends his film with one of the Zodiac’s surviving victim identifying Arthur Leigh Allen (a favorite Zodiac suspect) as the man who tried to kill him, but it still feels as uncertain as the film that preceded it. There’s no concrete confession nor triumphant arrest. As the film draws to a close, Fincher makes it clear that all that remains is the obsession and paranoia that has dogged his characters. Perhaps the cruelest answer is that there is no answer at all.

Do you have a favorite scene from Zodiac, similar or different from the one I highlighted? Is there another scene/ film you think we should cover? Let us know in the comments.


  1. SPOILER Very interesting analysis! I’ve just watched Zodiac again, and by far this is my favorite scene too. Another one that is really interesting is the opening scene, where we get to see the 60′, the neighbourhood where the victims lived and how isolated they were in the crime moment. It works perfectly with the closure of the film, with the same boy recognizing the killer who shot him 20 years ago!

  2. I had just finished telling my Mom why this was my favorite scene in the film and I came home and looked up Robert Vaughan and found this. You said it much better than I did!

  3. Who would’ve thought the voice of Roger Rabbit could belong to a man capable of scaring us out of our minds, and for absolutely no reason?! Fleischer plays the scene so beautifully: chilling to those of us who are watching through Graysmith’s eyes, and yet if you watch it again from Vaughn’s perspective, you realize that he’s just an innocent, if a bit eccentric, lonely older man. Covers all the bases perfectly.

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