Talk about a tough sell. David Fincher’s most accomplished film to date is a true-crime masterpiece about the Zodiac, an enigmatic serial killer whose random approach to murder terrified Northern California throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. Methodical and mesmerizing, the picture flirts with a three-hour run-time, features realistic depictions of senseless slaughter, and builds to an incomplete conclusion that is only satisfying when taken in context (for those unaware, the infamous cold case remains unsolved to this day).
It’s also brilliant, the first great film of the year which constructs with painstaking detail a fruitless investigation that grew into an obsession for certain members of San Francisco’s media and police forces.
Fincher has traced the steps of determined detectives tracking elusive killers before. His second feature, Seven, strung us along on a series of grisly murders as vague clues slowly snapped into place. Shock value meant something to Fincher at the time. As a storyteller, he still was trying to discover his voice, so contemplative scenes of Morgan Freeman researching potential leads in a library were offset by conventional action sequences that catapulted Brad Pitt down rain-soaked alleyways.
More mature, Zodiac disregards cheap jolts and commits itself fully to the investigative process. The protagonists are grizzled newspaper editors and dedicated beat cops snared in Zodiac’s attention-grabbing web. Zodiac doesn’t have one gunfight or gratuitous chase scene. Instead, we get the wonderful Philip Baker Hall analyzing handwriting samples to match penmanship of potential criminals to Zodiac’s published letters. Thrills occur when boot prints found at crime scenes can connect officers to the leading suspects. Trust me, it’s riveting.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. East coasters under the age of 40 might not know this case in detail. And in truth, nearly four decades after Zodiac’s first alleged kill, proper resolution still eludes us — the case has been open and shut repeatedly over the years.
Facts we can corroborate are covered by Fincher and crew on screen. After shooting two young adults who were parked near a golf course in Vallejo, a man calling himself Zodiac wrote confessional letters to the Bay Area’s major publications. The mailings also contained mysterious cryptograms which Zodiac wanted published.
As the killer collected more victims, his reign of terror swallowed up a number of colorful characters. Lead investigators David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) chased every lead generated by a paranoid community. They often found themselves at odds with San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), who sank so deep into the case (and a bottle of booze) that Zodiac eventually targeted him by name. Lurking on the fringe of the investigation was Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), an editorial cartoonist at the Chronicle whose avid interest in puzzles drew him to the Zodiac case until, like those around him, his obsession with identifying the killer cost him his job and family.
Graysmith eventually published a book on his findings, which Fincher uses as a road map to navigate the convoluted case. Zodiac covers decades, jumps through multiple jurisdictions, and casts a scorecard of worthy character actors willing to read but a few lines of dialogue (look for Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, and Chloë Sevigny as Graysmith’s tragic love interest).
Zodiac features a strong cast working from an intelligent script. Ruffalo and Downey are both fantastic as men whose insides are devoured by the investigation. The latter beautifully skewers a few of his own self-generated clichés to portray a gifted reporter whose vices cost him a bright career. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt taps into the dramatic tensions of newsrooms and crime scenes, perfecting the darkly cynical humor tossed off the cuff by professionals staring down death on a daily basis. It is street poetry, and far superior to the dreck that just won Departed scripter William Monahan an Oscar.
Behind the camera, Fincher continues to define his signature visual style. Cinematographer Harris Savides worked with Fincher on the nerve-wracking The Game, and helps him achieve moody, suspense-generating shots that keep us on edge. Fincher has at least three stunt visuals I’m compelled to see again, my favorite being a bird’s-eye view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
These tricks keep us vested, because as mentioned, Zodiac is long. My theory, though, is that the near-bloated length is essential to the story Fincher is trying to tell. For the men involved, it seemed like the Zodiac case would never end. Years passed, hot leads grew cold, evidence dried up, and prime suspects came and went. A defeatist attitude envelopes the film’s last third, and we feel the emotional drain on those that gave their lives to the investigation. There’s no way to properly convey that in a 90-minute film; and in hindsight, I can’t think of a single thing Fincher could have cut for time’s sake.
What I wish, instead, is that Fincher would work more frequently. The gifted filmmaker was downright prolific in the ’90s, cranking out Gen-X classics like Seven and Fight Club every two years. But Zodiac is only his second film this decade, and it arrives five years after his passable popcorn flick Panic Room. Part of me understands that artists can’t be rushed, and I’d regret a clipped process if it meant Fincher scrimped on style and substance. So long as the wait results in movies like Zodiac, then patience is a virtue I’ll continue to perfect.
The original DVD incudes no extras at all but it does offer a mention of a special edition, director’s cut DVD coming in 2008. Argh, we can’t wait!
Update: The special edition DVD and Blu-ray edition features the same cut of the film, but adds two commentary tracks, plus a second disc of extras filled with facts about the Zodiac killings (including a feature-length film of interviews with those involved and archival footage from the era), a lengthy segment on Arthur Leigh Allen, plus a few making-of featurettes. Highly recommended.
What do you mean, what’s my sign?