Zodiac (2007) - ****
Director David Fincher has certainly carved out a name and niche for himself. He started with the blockbuster Alien 3 where he cut his teeth and then directed the very successful Se7en. After The Game he then directed the (in)famous Fight Club in 1999, which I have previously reviewed here on For the Love of Film. Fincher followed up Fight Club with the very underrated Panic Room in 2002 (which I would like to review at some point). And then five years went by before Fincher released his next, and best, film. And that’s saying something because I’ve listed some good movies and he even followed this one up with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (another one I’d like to review soon). But just as Tarantino considered Inglorious Basterds his masterpiece, I believe Zodiac is Fincher’s finest moment.
Zodiac is based on a true story. Right at the end of the 60’s a serial killer strikes in San Francisco and starts writing encrypted letters to the San Francsico Chronicle (as well as two other Bay Area newspapers), demanding that they be published or he will kill more people. The crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) can’t figure out what to make of these letters but mild-mannered single parent Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who works as a political cartoonist at the Chronicle is able to figure it out. He quickly takes a very strong interest in cracking the Zodiac code and helping to stop the murders. They don’t stop though and detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are put on the case. They quickly find though that, like Avery and Graysmith, there are a lot of dead ends. Pretty soon the murders seem to stop but the hunt continues and it starts to consume all of these men’s lives. Who is the Zodiac?
Robert Graysmith is an actual man who wrote books about the Zodiac Killer. His memories and recollections help shape the story and the screenplay by James Vanderbilt benefits from this as well as all the investigating done by Graysmith, Vanderbilt, and Fincher.
Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast as Graysmith, an upstanding man just trying to do the best he can for his son but with something lurking underneath. Why does the case mean so goddamn much to him? He’s a political cartoonist and has nothing to do with the police and crime section. Downey Jr is arrogant but likeable as Avery and Ruffalo’s character Toschi (complete with action sideburns) is impossible not to feel bad for as he is eaten alive by the case. Chloe Sevigny has a small turn as Graysmith’s blind date/spouse and the undersung John Carroll Lynch (Fargo, The Drew Carey Show) gives perhaps the best performance of the entire film as the entirely creepy Arthur Leigh Allen. Actually Phillip Baker Hall’s character who used to work with Allen may be even terrfying.
The amazing thing in Zodiac is how little in the way of ‘action’ there is during the entire second half of the film and yet because the first hour set up the story so well you don’t even realize it. The story is so engaging and intriguing guns and knives aren’t needed at all. And frankly it doesn’t even matter because this really isn’t a story about the Zodiac Killer, it’s a story about the people who tried to discover the Zodiac Killer’s identity. Despite the on-screen murders the scariest part of Zodiac occurs when nobody is even killed.
This is all a credit to Fincher who’s direction gives Zodiac an ominous (Northern California) feel while setting up all sorts of unsettling situations and events. There is an unmistakable feeling that something big is going on here. And it is.
Zodiac didn’t make much money at the box office or get much mainstream attention but make no mistake about it: Zodiac is a gripping two and a half hour ride that will tell you a real story you don’t already know.