Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox
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Synopsis: A serial killer in the San Francisco Bay Area taunts police with his letters and cryptic messages. We follow the investigators and reporters in this lightly fictionalized account of the true 1970's case as they search for the murderer, becoming obsessed with the case. Based on Robert Graysmith's book, the movie's focus is the lives and careers of the detectives and newspaper people. Written by Tom Day
Review: For decades San Francisco and its surrounding counties were haunted by a faceless, seemingly unstoppable killer -- one who crowed about his murders to the press and struck without warning. From the late 1960's until the 1980's, a killer known as Zodiac took credit for 37 murders. That number may be a fabrication of a psychopath's bravado -- but it's incontrovertible that Zodiac committed 5 grisly shootings and stabbings that took place on lover's lanes and darkened streets. Director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) grew up in the Bay Area during those years, and revisits that time of terror and tension with his new film Zodiac. There's one easy criticism that can be lodged at Zodiac from the start: How can you possibly make a suspense film out of a story that's still a mystery? The Zodiac killer was never caught, after all -- so where's the climax, the closure?
The easy answer to that is simple: Life often doesn't provide closure -- and Fincher expertly crafts tension and suspense from the things we don't know about the Zodiac case. Zodiac follows the parallel investigations by police and press, the possible suspects, the tantalizing leads, the frustrating dead ends, the exciting possibilities. By showing us the details in carefully-wrought, exacting fashion, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt turn the hunt for the Zodiac killer into thrilling, exciting cinema -- and the best true-life tale of detection we've had on the big screen since All the President's Men.
Fincher's film is based on the book by Robert Graysmith -- who first became entangled in the case while working for the San Francisco Chronicle. Graysmith was an editorial cartoonist who happened to be in the right (or wrong) place at the right time. The Chronicle newsroom buzzed with the sick, slick tension of receiving letters from a killer along with demands to print letters and ciphers that were meant to mock and manipulate the police. Graysmith (played with wide-eyed charm by Jake Gyllenhaal) was a puzzle buff who started working Zodiac's ciphers on his own. At the same time, Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr. doing a partial riff on Hunter S. Thompson and every other young rebel of news in the '70s) worked his angles and tried to make an investigation that ranged through different counties and across jurisdictions into a coherent whole.
Meanwhile the cops work the case -- from small-town lawmen Narlow (Donal Logue) and Sgt. Mulnax (Elias Koteas) to SFPD detectives Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). One of the pleasures of Zodiac comes in watching cops -- real cops, not hunch-guided clichés or paranormal precognitives -- work logic and fact so that each question can lead to a smarter question that might find the killer. When Toschi sees the crime scene of a murdered cabdriver, he starts talking through the tableaux from the killer's point of view: "I get this cab, I give him the address -- Did I give him the address? Who's got the fare book?" Deduction, investigation, tactical thinking -- they're rare things to see in life, let alone on the screen. But Fincher consistently makes a mosaic for us over a span of years -- each jagged piece adds up to a big picture, broken edges transforming into smoother shapes with just a little perspective. (The only exception comes late in the film when a Zodiac cipher comes out of -- and then goes -- nowhere in Graysmith's investigation. It's the only head-scratching moment in the film's 160 minutes.)
Fincher also shows us mis-steps -- leads lost, files misplaced, information not shared. Zodiac moves in herky-jerky fashion -- titles tell us of weeks and months passing between scenes -- and we feel the film lurch and move, like the investigation, in the erratic rhythms of a killer. The film doesn't just demonstrate how the media was full of the killings (a call-in radio host asks "Is the Zodiac a Satanist?" -- a perfectly reasonable question in '70s San Francisco). It also shows how the killings were full of the media -- from Zodiac's obsession with the B-movie The Most Dangerous Game to the killer's curiosity about who will play him in the inevitable movie.
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Zodiac is so wide-ranging that it's hard to single out performance moments -- Ruffalo plays Toschi as a dogged cop, Gyllenhaal captures Graysmith as an all-American obsessive. But there are a few other bright moments as well, including Brian Cox as notorious San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli, dispensing platitudes and booze with aplomb: "The public has a right to know, officer -- toddy?" And there are a host of character actors playing possible Zodiac candidates -- including a creepy turn from an unexpected player who can't be named for fear of spoiling the pleasure of his part. Fincher, though, is the star - the look of Zodiac is impressively calculated, from the retro touches (The Chronicle newsroom is a '70s panorama of rotary-dial phones, electric typewriters and people smoking indoors) to the impressive digital recreations of a San Francisco skyline long gone by.
Zodiac doesn't have the sun-blasted gothic kinetic rush of Seven -- and it shouldn't. Seven isn't a mystery; it's a horror film that pits an unstoppable monster-God against puppet protagonists. Zodiac is something deeper, richer, more real and more human. Fiction conditions us to expect tidy resolutions, neat packages, big finishes; fiction delivers those because real life's messy mistakes, unfinished business and small victories make us hunger for them. We want those things -- and so do Zodiac's characters -- and we watch as they try to come to grips with the ugly fact that what they long for might never come. The irony is that a director who gave us the perfect execution of a serial killer fantasy in Seven now gives us the perfect execution of a serial killer's reality -- the bragging, the lies, the dead ends, the cold trails. Zodiac shows how obsession can become the kind of hunger that devours itself over weeks, months and years; it's the sort of real-world time frame -- and real-world truth -- that few filmmakers have the skill, or the courage, to tackle. Fincher's earlier films demonstrated he was an entertainer of the first order; with Zodiac, he proves he's an artist.
**Review by: James Rocchi
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