One of Robert Downey Jr.’s most impressive and thought-provoking movies, before he hit it big as Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is making its way to Netflix just in time for October.
As people rush to find a scary movie to stream in the spookiest month of the year, many may turn their attention to the 2007 film starring Robert Downy Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, June Diane Raphael and many more noteworthy names — Zodiac. However, they may be disappointed, as some viewers were at the time, to find a story that’s less about the brutal, grisly and still unsolved murders that plagued California residents in the late 1960s and early 1970s and more a tale about the flawed men who chased the killer on various fronts.
To get the elephant out of the room. Before Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal were even names on anyone’s radar, a real-life killer who called himself the Zodiac and claimed to have killed upwards of 30 people — although only five were confirmed victims of his — was terrorizing Northern California. Not only was he on a murder spree, but he sent a series of taunting and threatening letters to both the police and media.
Fast forward several decades and the Zodiac killer is a point of immense public intrigue. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, a bevy of clues and public interest in the case through the roof, no one was in handcuffs. However, a lot of theories were presented over the years, namely from the book Zodiac by Robert Graysmith. Acclaimed filmmaker David Fincher decides to make a movie out of Graysmith’s story, casting Jake Gyllenhaal as him and Robert Downey Jr. as his colleague at a newspaper who covers the crime beat. What unfolds is a tale of the journalists who are looking for answers in a bizarre and frightening case that will satisfy a terrified public. Meanwhile, law enforcement and detectives are also trying to figure out how to put a stop to these crimes and the incessant taunting of the killer that’s putting more strain on the public.
Unfortunately, word of mouth quickly spread that anyone looking for a slasher film or even a film that offered insight into the identity of the killer and the police’s failure to apprehend him would be left wanting. Instead, they got a terrifically acted portrait of people like Robert Downey Jr.’s character, who drinks too much and works too hard to track crime and killers in a town that’s typically indifferent to their existence. But, alas, as with all unsolved crimes, the film adaptations can only do so much in terms of satisfying public interest that the real-life story can’t do better.
Despite rave critical reviews and some awards attention, Box Office Mojo reports that Zodiac was a commercial failure, earning roughly $84,785,914 million worldwide on an estimated budget of $65,000,000. Still, one could argue that some good came of the film given the stepping stone it gave Robert Downey Jr.
One year later, the actor would go on to make Iron Man with Jon Favreau at the helm. The story goes that the director had to fight to get Robert Downey Jr. cast given how risky he was to ensure due to past mistakes in his personal life. If he wasn’t able to point to things like Zodiac in order to make his case, who knows how another actor would have done as Tony Stark or if the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be the more than 20-movie-deep powerhouse in cinema that it is today.
Speaking to IGN at the time of the release of Zodiac, Robert Downy Jr. noted that getting into the drama of the film that David Fincher demanded was difficult and that going from that to Tony Stark was a very big and abrupt about-face. Meanwhile, the movie almost ended Jake Gyllenhaal’s working relationship with Fincher, who noted to the New York Times that he was at odds with the young actor on set because his career was taking off, namely with the release of the movie Jarhead and he wasn’t able to put in the focus that Robert Downey Jr. was committing and that Fincher demanded. Fortunately, the two buried the hatchet by the end of production and the performance was better off for it.
Everyone put in the work on Zodiac and while the nature of the story meant audiences would be less interested at the time, it went on to be a critical success and a profoundly well-respected movie. The BBC rated it the 12th greatest film of the 21st Century, which is right where the likes of Robert Downey Jr. belongs.