Directed by David Fincher
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.
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