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In the movie "Zodiac" the cartoonist Robert Graysmith takes on investigation of the Zodiac killer and eventually tracks down Bob Vaughn.

During the episode it is revealed that the handwriting on a movie poster that matched closely with Zodiac's handwriting is in fact Bob Vaughn's. After that the episode's tone turns really grim and unsettling. After Robert Graysmith fled Bob Vaughn's apartment he mentioned something about there being two killers (I could not really make out what he was saying). And after that...nothing! As if he never even met Bob Vaughn.

So what was the meaning of that subplot? Why did Fincher decide to portray it so dark and unsettling?

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  • Also, Vaughn's car is the Zodiac's car.
    – Evan Aad
    Jul 24, 2021 at 18:29

4 Answers 4

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Because it’s basically showing that Graysmith is so far in this, he’s seeing the Zodiac in everyone. Bob Vaughn was a real guy actually (an organist) and he was never implicated as the Zodiac at all. Graysmith was just going a bit crazy trying to solve this case.

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  • Yes, I pretty much agree on this after contemplating this question. I guess Fincher wanted to show that this obsession was becoming unhealthy (he pretty much lost his family over this), he was becoming paranoid. One can even argue that from Bob Vaughn's prospective the scene was just two guys talking and all this eerie atmosphere was just in Graysmith's head.
    – ruslaniv
    Oct 7, 2020 at 11:10
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And after that...nothing! As if he never even met Bob Vaughn.

When Robert Graysmith meets Linda at San Joaquin County Honor Camp where she was locked up, the following conversation happens:

LINDA: What's this about?

GRAYSMITH: Zodiac.

LINDA: Figures. You got the look.

GRAYSMITH: What look?

LINDA: I...I didn't mean anything.

GRAYSMITH: Tell me about this "painting party".

LINDA: Told the cops about it so long ago. Darlene always had lots of boys around, even though she was married. This one guy was weird, though. He used to bring her presents from Mexico. I don't know why she was friends with him. She once told me he'd killed somebody.

GRAYSMITH: Really?

LINDA: Yup. Maybe when he was in the service. GRAYSMITH: The Navy?

LINDA: I think so.

GRAYSMITH: Was he into movies?

LINDA: He wasn't into people, I can tell you that. This party Darlene threw, people were supposed to show up, have beers, help paint. This dude shows up in a suit. He sat alone in a chair, didn't talk to anyone. Creeped me out. Darlene told me not to go near him. She was scared of him. Couple weeks later, she was dead.

GRAYSMITH: Do you remember his name?

LINDA: It was short. Like a nickname. Like Stan

GRAYSMITH: Rick?

LINDA: No. No, I don't think so.

GRAYSMITH: Are you sure?

LINDA: Yeah.

GRAYSMITH: How can you be sure? It was long time ago. Think hard.

LINDA: I am thinking hard

GRAYSMITH: It was Rick.

LINDA: No, it wasn't.

GRAYSMITH: It was Rick, Rick Marshall.

LINDA: No.

GRAYSMITH: Just say it.

LINDA: It wasn't Rick.

GRAYSMITH WALKS AWAY

LINDA: It was Leigh.

GRAYSMITH: Leigh?

LINDA: Yea, Leigh. Sound's right.

It was after this conversation that Robert Graysmith rules out Rick Marshall and Bob Vaughn from the suspect list and now he's onto Leigh.

Quoting from an Interview with Fichner,

Robert Graysmith knew he was a guy on the sidelines of this story. He wanted to be a part of it and he made himself a part of it. He was doing it on his own time, because he wasn’t a reporter. It was Robert who went after it, after everybody else had pretty much walked away.

This implies that Robert Graysmith went to some extremes covering all the suspects in the list.

Even though Bob Vaughn was not in suspect list of police I think the purpose of this scene was to bring forth the audience the fact that there were people who would fit the description or you might confuse them as a suspect.

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    Yes, I remember this dialogue. But the tone of the scene makes no sense if you approach it from the prospective to "just show there are many suspects". Arguably this is one of the most frightening scenes in the movie, even more disturbing than the killings themselves. I don't think that Fincher would focus emotionally on this subplot so much just to deliver a message "there are many suspects", since it was already clear from other scenes in the movie.
    – ruslaniv
    Aug 22, 2020 at 10:03
  • @RusI: My point was that, Robert went to extreme length about this case. Remember when he tells Toschi at end that he has walked distance between Leigh's house and coffee shop ? He could had backed out and insisted to leave when Bob Vaughn told him it was his handwriting, but still he proceeds to basement.
    – Rahul
    Aug 22, 2020 at 15:28
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Maybe, just maybe and hear me out on this one, Bob Vaughn could have been the Zodiac and based his whole plan around Arthur Leigh. I wouldn't put it behind the Zodiac to have already found a scapegoat before he even started killing? If the DNA didn't match Leigh, or the handwriting, maybe he was set up before he even knew it. A Molester who has somehow created a series of code that for decades cannot be uncovered, yet not smart enough to keep his paedophilic ways a secret? Seems iffy to me, personally I think that the handwriting match and the fact he knew so much about the case off the top of his head was enough to suspect him, let alone he knew about the symbol in the film. I'm sure this man knew more then he was letting. He also looks oddly similar to the zodiac killer sketch. Just a little thought, not valid in anyway.

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It demonstrates how reckless Graysmith has become

One of the subplots in the film is that Graysmith loses his family as a result of his obsession. This scene helps underscore the fact that this was not an undeserved fate.

His wife tolerates his obsession with Zodiac from literally their first date. At first, she finds it intriguing too, but she eventually she loses interest; Graysmith does not. Notably, she is not some kind of stereotypical harpy who cannot tolerate her partner having a hobby in which he is very engrossed -- unfortunately, that's a common theme in fiction; she is not like that.

But consider what he's doing: hunting down a serial killer who operates in their city. A serial killer who does not wish to be found. And he's not being particularly discreet about it, either. There's a scene before this one in which she observes that Graysmith's name and picture were printed in the paper in connection with his dogged hunt for the Zodiac. They later start receiving mysterious phone calls. Graysmith is effectively doing everything he can to bring himself to the attention of a remorseless killer, and endangering his wife and children in the process. She asks him to stop, and he doesn't.

It's kind of amazing that the Zodiac never came to their house to stage some kind of home invasion, to punish and silence Graysmith. It would have been very reasonable for Mrs Graysmith to fear that eventuality.

Then he crosses paths with Bob Vaughn. Evidence suggests that he's getting closer to the killer, so he ought to be thinking about safety. Instead, he lets this complete stranger lure him out to the boonies alone, enters his strange home, and descends into his creepy basement. If Vaughn had indeed been the Zodiac, Graysmith had served himself up on a silver platter.

The scene in Bob's basements suggests that if Dracula himself had offered to reveal Zodiac's identity to Graysmith, but only on the condition that Graysmith first don a leather gimp suit, strap on a ball-gag, and climb into a large heavy trunk in Dracula's underground catacombs, Graysmith would have accepted without a second thought and only become wise to the immediate danger when he heard Dracula lock the trunk with him in it.

Graysmith loses his family because his obsession with Zodiac is so powerful that it blinds him to everything, including his own immediate safety. This scene proves it by briefly suggesting to the audience that Bob might be the killer so that we recognize what Graysmith cannot: that he is literally too obsessed to survive.

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  • In retrospect, I feel this comes off as unsympathetic to Graysmith, and that wasn't my intent. I like him and rooted for him the whole movie. When I say he "deserved" to lose his family, I simply meant that he deliberately, knowingly persisted in behavior that he knew put them at risk, and over his wife's very reasonable and clearly stated objections. I won't say that makes him bad, but he was making a conscious choice and had every reason to expect the outcome he obtained. And, I was only thinking about the fictionalized character as presented here, not the real human.
    – Tom
    Nov 2, 2023 at 2:44

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