Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith
Mark Ruffalo as Inspector David Toschi
Anthony Edwards as Inspector William Armstrong
Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery
Brian Cox as Melvin Belli
John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen
Chloë Sevigny as Melanie
Elias Koteas as Sgt. Jack Mulanax
Dermot Mulroney as Captain Marty Lee
Ed Setrakian as Al Hyman
John Getz as Templeton Peck
John Terry as Charles Theiriot
Candy Clark as Carol Fisher
Donal Logue as Ken Narlow
June Raphael as Mrs. Toschi
Ciara Hughes as Darlene Ferrin
Lee Norris as Mike Mageau (Young)
Patrick Scott Lewis as Bryan Hartnell
Pell James as Cecelia Shepherd
Philip Baker Hall as Sherwood Morrill
Charles Schneider as Cabbie/Paul Stine
James Carraway as Shorty
James LeGros as Officer George Bawart
Charles Fleischer as Bob Vaughn
Clea DuVall as Linda Ferrin
Paul Schulze as Sandy Panzarella
Directed by David Fincher
David Fincher has achieved a new level of filmmaking, turning his back on the tried-and-true techniques he originated to create a true crime thriller that’s surprising in how thoroughly it reveals the facts and details of the case without ever being tedious or exploitative. It’s an amazing film experience.
In 1969, a murder on the outskirts of San Francisco starts a series of killings attributed to a serial killer dubbed Zodiac, who writes to the San Francisco Chronicle boasting of his deeds with cryptic hints to his future plans. As millions of people become riveted by the killer’s words and actions, homicide detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) spend years of their lives trying to solve the crimes, only to be shown-up by cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), who becomes equally obsessed with the case.
Nearly twelve years after making “Se7en” a serial killer thriller for the MTV generation, filmmaker David Fincher has returned with an ambitious project that breaks away from what might be expected from him. The results are nothing short of a masterpiece.
The film’s tone is set by the brutal shooting of a boy and girl parked in a secluded spot by an unseen figure, made even more disturbing by the mundane and matter-of-fact way the killings take place. A few minutes later, we’re in the pressroom of the San Francisco Chronicle where a coded letter has arrived, claiming to be from the killer that has called himself “Zodiac.” Crime reporter Paul Avery (Downey) takes point on the story, though the paper’s editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) is just as intrigued by the killer’s cryptic messages; they make an odd pair of armchair sleuths, Graysmith being a clean-nosed introvert who never smokes or drinks and Avery being the exact opposite. At the same time, the homicide detectives assigned to the case are frustrated by the incompetence of the sheriff’s departments in neighboring counties, as each new clue or suspect is shot down by insufficient evidence. As Zodiac’s killing spree continues, the city is put under lockdown, while the media and populace are riveted by every scrap of detail revealed in Avery’s colorful reports.
There’s a lot of interesting things about Fincher’s first film in four years, but the shifting narrative between the three main characters certainly stands out. It starts as a story about Toschi and his partner’s attempt to find the killer while Avery tries to hog their glory. They leave the picture as the film jumps ahead four years to follow the quest by Robert Graysmith–author of the film’s source material–to research a book on the subject. Soon, he’s possessed by the same obsession that drove his predecessors, leading to a paranoid encounter in a shadowy basement, just one of the pay-off thrills beyond Fincher’s recreation of Zodiac’s murders.
“Zodiac” is nothing like the recent spate of serial killer thrillers though–don’t expect shoot-outs or car chases for instance–and it’s also nothing like might expect based on Fincher’s past films. It’s more of a subdued drama, which surprises in how it keeps your attention rapt over the course of two and a half hours of dialogue, evidence and procedure, as three men try to solve the mystery behind the killer who’s able to evade normal forensic methods. The amount of time spent by Fincher parlaying the facts and details is impressive. His thoroughness in trying to show every scrap of evidence, however circumstantial, making a very clear-cut case for Graysmith’s theories about the killer’s true identity.
Until the point it turns into Gyllenhaal’s movie, “Zodiac” is an amazing spotlight for Mark Ruffalo’s talents at transforming himself into the eccentric detective that would be the catalyst for gritty film detectives like Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry.” Surprisingly, the stark gravitas that permeates the film still allows for a bit of humor in the form of Downey’s flamboyant depiction of Paul Avery. The amazing group of actors supporting the three leads’ intricate performances include Chloe Sevigny as Graysmith’s wife, Brian Cox as a TV personality who connects with Zodiac and Anthony Edwards’ as Toschi’s partner.
In some ways, the look and feel of “Zodiac” owes more to films of the era, as Fincher impeccably recreates the fashions of the times while minimizing the computer-enhanced camerawork he’s used so well in past films. Tonally, the movie owes more to movies like “All the President’s Men” than “Serpico,” though one can find modern-day touchstones in films like Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd” or Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” without dragging or trying to shoehorn superfluous scenes into the story.
The Bottom Line:
While Fincher might be back in familiar territory, “Zodiac” couldn’t be more different from “Se7en,” being a masterfully realized period crime drama that should appeal to fans of Court TV or “CSI.” It’s easy to lose track of time while watching, since throughout the literally 2 hours and 35 minutes of details and facts, the movie never loses sight of the dedicated individuals who nearly destroyed their lives trying to solve the case.