Best True Crime Movie


Zodiac is the best movie to revolve around a true crime story. Hands down. The acting, directing, and photography is all secondary to the way in which Zodiac tells the real life story of the Zodiac Killer. (That’s not to dismiss the acting or directing or photography. Everything in this movie is top notch. This film lands in the top five for everyone involved. One of Robert Downey Jr‘s top five; One of Jake Gyllenhaal‘s top five; One of David Fincher‘s top five, etc.)

Serial killers have this mythical status in the realm of movies. A good majority of both police thrillers and horror movies revolve around these mass murderers. The serial killer has become a sort of short hand for the movie industry to go toe-to-toe with a protagonist. The best cop on the force met just met his worst nightmare… Sarah thought she was going to have a fun weekend in the woods…

Serial killers aren’t really like how they’re portrayed in movies. Obviously movies like Halloween or Scream don’t portray their killers accurately. Those killers are part of an alternate reality.
The horror comes from the fact that the world in Halloween is almost like ours, but not quite. A movie like Se7en is a little more realistic. The protagonist takes time to figure out clues and doesn’t run around guns blazing looking for the killer.

Zodiac, however, takes place over 30 years chronicling Robert Graysmith (from the San Francisco Chronicle) and Dave Toschi’s (San Francisco Police Department) attempt to solve the Zodiac case.

Let’s break that down. Zodiac starts in 1969 with the second Zodiac Killing and ends in 1991 when authorities track down the survivor of that attack at an airport. In contrast, Se7en takes place over a week. Halloween‘s story starts with a prologue and picks up 15 years later. The rest of story takes place over one Halloween night. Silence of the Lambs presumably takes place over a week or two.

Zodiac is about the attempt to catch the serial killer. Maybe the Zodiac Killer was smart enough to escape police custody, but what is more likely is human error on the part of the police. There is even a scene in the movie that shows this. Two cops passed what could have been the killer because they had an incorrect description from their dispatcher. Zodiac correctly conveys the nature of an elusive serial killer.

The cops in Zodiac don’t run recklessly, either. Unlike other movies where the cops will bend or break the law to catch the killer, the cops in this film strictly uphold the law. Much of the second act of this movie revolves around the inability to collect evidence against Toschi and Graysmith’s number one suspect, Arthur Lee Allen.

Now, oddly enough, it took the film Zodiac to correct the numerous misconceptions about serial killers in pop culture which were inspired by the real Zodiac Killer. (The protagonist and antagonist in Dirty Harry, Harry and Scorpio, were based off Toschi and the Zodiac Killer).
The chief reason why Zodiac succeeds as a film might be that it doesn’t glamourize any aspect of the case. The movie is populated by realistic characters and realistic scenarios. Movies like Bonnie and Clyde, American Gangster, Public Enemies, Donnie Brasco, Casino, Goodfellas, and Blow all (whether they wanted to or not) glamourize the criminal life. No matter who the protagonist is in a story, the audience is likely to connect on some level simply because the story is being told through their eyes. Zodiac doesn’t glamourize law enforcement either like The Untouchables. There’s no superhero cops in this film – just real life people working a job and trying to solve a mystery.

Zodiac is the best true crime film to date because it dispels the myths and misconceptions about serial killers all the while delivering a top notch, engaging story.

Bonnie & Clyde
When Harrison suggested the debate idea for best movie about true criminals the first and only film that came to mind was Bonnie and Clyde (1967). I agree that Zodiac is a great film about one of the most intriguing series of crimes in history but I disagree with Harrison that Bonnie and Clyde glorifies the criminal lifestyle. It is Bonnie and Clyde’s excellent visual style and its ambiguous ending that makes it the best true crime film.

If you have ever been to film school, have taken a film class or have hung out with a film student, you probably have heard someone talk about the importance of Bonnie and Clyde. It is undeniable; the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 was one of the most important and resonant events of American cinema. It is the beginning of the New Hollywood period which starts in the late 1960s and continues to the 1980s. This period of New Hollywood films contains some of the most influential and important filmmakers of all time. Without Bonnie and Clyde breaking taboos of showing violence, ambiguous morality, and blatant immorality on film, Zodiac and the many other true crime films would not be possible.

I know what you’re thinking: “historical importance equals boring film,” but you’re dead wrong. Unlike many film school movies that are great because of technique and historical importance but are dreadful to watch, Bonnie and Clyde is a delightful film. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway give great performances as the sympathetic thief/murderers. Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons are terrific in their supporting roles. Parsons earned an academy award for her work. It’s also the first screen appearance of Gene Wilder who is amazing as the Eugene Gizzard.

Speaking of Academy Awards, the cinematography in Bonnie and Clyde is amazing. The two scenes that come to mind is the scene when Bonnie takes Clyde to see her family and the ending of the film. The scene with Bonnie and her family is shot with this amazing blown out, blue hue. It depicts them having a good time as if Bonnie was still a civilian. However this moment is only a dream, an escape back into a fantasy of a life before crime. The whole film is shot with these subtle visual clues that foreshadow and reinforce the themes and events of the plot.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you don’t want to know the ending.

The second scene I’m thinking of is the ending (this is where I disagree with Harrison and suggest that he has not seen Bonnie and Clyde). The ending is one of the most ingenious in Hollywood history. It’s shot with multiple cameras, shooting in multiple speeds and causes the viewer to have a extremely visceral reaction. You see Bonnie and Clyde mercilessly slaughtered by the officers of the law. It is one of the most powerful scenes in film history. The bloody demise of Bonnie and Clyde shocks the viewer into distrusting the law. Unlike films that glorify the lawlessness of crime, this film demyths the absolutist righteousness of the law.

This final reason why I think this is the greatest true crime film to date. Bonnie and Clyde is the first film to show both sides of the conflict between the law and the criminal. The audience knows what Bonnie and Clyde is doing is wrong but also believes that the way the law deals with them is also wrong. In the end the majority of viewers will ally most of their sympathies with Bonnie and Clyde however this ambiguity is one that is not present in many films and is especially not present in Zodiac. In the end I feel that Zodiac is a good film however it upholds the black and white division between criminal and lawman. Bonnie and Clyde is a better film because it gives the viewer an emotional experience that makes them reevaluate their own moral codes.