When I negatively reviewed Seven over a decade ago, I wrote something to the effect that the movie was made by “sick people with sick minds.” Since that time, director David Fincher has gone on to become one of my favorite filmmakers, proving that sometimes even critics can be wrong. Fincher is not, in fact, a sick person with a sick mind, as he proves with Zodiac, based on the true story of the infamous murderer who terrorized San Francisco and the surrounding area from the late 60’s through the late 70’s. The movie is unexpectedly humane, as it focuses not so much on the killer himself as on the cops and reporters who sacrificed little pieces of themselves in an fruitless effort to bring him to justice.
Opening with an attack on a young couple at a Bay Area make-out spot, the story then moves to the office of the San Francisco Chronicle. The editor has received a letter confessing to the crime and demanding that a cryptic code be published on the front page and the Chronicle and two other papers. If the code is not published, the anonymous writer says, he will kill again. The demand is met, but the guy who comes to be known as the Zodiac Killer murders again anyway.
The case grabs the attention of reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and, by proximity, political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). They eagerly take in each new piece of correspondence from the killer, trying to solve his little puzzles. The guy seems particularly eager to have contact with the press. Several letters in, he starts a scare when he threatens to take out a school bus full of children. Later, he does something even more unthinkable: he announces that he might start killing without warning, meaning that the authorities won’t know which murders are his, which are someone else’s, and which are accidents.
This fact is particularly troubling to the detectives working the case, as they figure there’s a decent chance of catching the Zodiac as long as he’s providing clues. Inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) chase down every lead they can find. Many of them are dead ends. They finally get a strong lead suggesting that the killer may be a disgraced teacher named Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), but they can’t get enough evidence to nail him, and some of the evidence they do get suggests that he’s innocent.
Then, without warning, the Zodiac stops sending letters for several years. The case is formally considered “dead.” Toschi is the only cop still officially assigned, and it eats away at his soul knowing that the killer is still out there somewhere. Avery feels the same way; consequently, he’s driven to drugs and alcohol. By the late 70’s, Graysmith (who has never stopped obsessing about the case either) decides to pour over the public record in order to write a book. He uncovers some clues that were missed by the cops and enlists the help of Toschi in checking them out. When the Zodiac comes out of the woodwork to contact Graysmith, he knows that he must be on the right track.
Zodiac is admirable in that it’s not your typical serial killer movie. Most of them – even the good ones – relish in the gory details of the murders. This one shows only of the murders, very briefly, in the first half hour. They are not particularly violent (at least not compared to most films in the genre), and they go just far enough to drive home the horror of Zodiac’s crimes. After that, we see no more blood because the focus shifts to the how the investigation was carried out and how the killer repeatedly confounded those who were looking for him. Police procedurals can sometimes be dry, but Fincher knows how to keep the pace up. Rather than boring us with endless details, the film continually draws us into the investigation as the players put each new piece together.
The reason it avoids the potential pitfalls is that there is a heavy character emphasis. Each of the key figures shares an unquenchable desire to pursue every possible lead, even though their dedication sometimes causes personal problems. (Graysmith’s wife, for example, resents having the family prioritized below the search for the killer.) What they all have in common is a sense of being tormented. They know Zodiac is real, and they know that he could potentially kill again at any time. This knowledge weighs on their souls. How can they forget about it when they know someone so evil is walking around freely? Zodiac works as a depiction of a criminal investigation, but even more than that it works as an examination of how a tough-to-catch criminal eats away at those who seek to apprehend him.
David Fincher beautifully juggles all the different characters and plot threads. He also displays his most controlled filmmaking to date. In the past, he has dressed up his films with showy visuals, such as the long tracking shots in Panic Room or the enhanced fantasy visuals of Fight Club. That style worked for those movies, but this one requires something quite different. There are only two trademark Fincher touches: a time-compressed shot of a building being erected to show the passing of a year, and a montage where the killer’s scrawled missives are superimposed over the walls of a police station. Both are used carefully to maximize the power of their individual scenes. Throughout, Fincher carefully controls the tone and mood, finding just the right way to portray the psychological impact the killer has on Graysmith and the others.
Each and every performance in Zodiac is perfectly tailored. I liked how the actors gave the characters interesting little traits. Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith as nervously introspective, while Downey’s Avery is a man who tries to showboat with varying degrees of subtlety. Ruffalo’s Toschi has a habit of eating animal crackers, which seems perfectly in line with his wiry personality. There are also strong supporting performances from Brian Cox as lawyer Melvin Belli, Chloe Sevigny as Graysmith’s wife, and Phillip Baker Hall as an aged handwriting analyst.
The movie runs two hours and forty minutes, which can be an eternity if the story is slow or repetitive. Zodiac is neither. I found that the running time went by pretty quickly. If anything, there may have been an odd moment or two that went by too fast; following the complex story requires some concentration. Still, I happily absorbed myself in the whole thing. The Zodiac killer was, of course, never formally caught, which would seem to present a problem for the film’s ending. That problem is successfully circumvented by again staying focused on the characters. What the legal record officially states is, for the purposes of this movie, not necessarily as important as the resolution Graysmith and Toschi find for themselves. So many serial killer films are about the killer; Zodiac rises to the top of the genre by finding its own path and following it masterfully.
( 1/2 out of four)
Zodiac is rated R for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images. The running time is 2 hours and 38 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Zodiac
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