Zodiac (2007) dir. David Fincher
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo
“Zodiac” is David Fincher’s second turn at the serial killer genre, but this one differs because it’s based on real events. As a result, the film isn’t about dramatic manipulation or exploitation instead it’s a lengthy examination of the uncovering of the facts very much akin to “All the President’s Men” (see my previous review).
From 1969 to 1979, the Zodiac killer terrorized the San Francisco Bay area with a series of random and indiscriminate murders. The killer had no modus operandi or motive, and, as a result, the killings remained unsolved for a long time. The film, event-by-event, recounts the hours, days and years spent by the cops and reporters involved with the case.
The first half of the film deals with the first 5 years of the case and centres on the chief detectives, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards (good to see him back on the big screen) and the newspaper reporters writing about the case, Robert Downey Jr. (Robert Avery). In the background but uninvolved, is Jake Gyllenhaal, a cartoonist (Robert Graysmith) who silently observes the case over people’s shoulders.
The depiction of the murders are grisly – though not as gruesome or dramatic as “Seven,” but perhaps more terrifying knowing that they actually occurred. The point of view is always with the facts of the case, and therefore we only see the killer during the killing scenes. As a result, he remains a mysterious figure throughout the film and when the police confront a potential suspect, we, the audience, judge their faces and unconscious actions as if we’re the investigators as well.
The second half of the film centres on the obsessive “JFK”-style reinvestigation of the case in the latter 70’s by Graysmith (who went on to write 2 true-crime bestsellers). With the killer dormant, the case had remained unsolved, but without new evidence no one is rushing to pursue it. As Ruffalo’s character says, there have been 200 murders since the last Zodiac killing, why should he devote his attention away from these? So why is Graysmith pursuing the case? What’s his angle? Is it for justice, or is it because, as he says, he likes solving puzzles?
The compression of time would seem to present a challenge, as the film jumps through the weeks, months and years with speed. Traditional methods of identifying new time periods are thrown away in favor of a simple on-screen text like “three weeks later”, or “3 years later.” The characters don’t change, nor should they have to. They are real people and professionals at their jobs and it all works.
“Zodiac” is one of the most purely procedurals films ever made. The film doesn’t shy away from bombarding the audience with too much information (aka ‘exposition’ which is considered ‘lazy’ screenwriting). But as with “All the President’s Men,” the facts, or in this case, the evidence, are as important as the characters in the film.
"Zodiac" runs two and a half hours but feels like an hour and a half. Like a roller coaster ride, I wanted it to go longer. But the ending is natural and provides sufficient closure. You’ll know it by the post-script crawl. And you certainly won’t forget the hypnotic use a Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” which bookends the film – in fact it’s still in my head as I type this.
As an aside, if anyone’s interested in the technical side of the film you'll know David Fincher’s films always look crisp and sharp. This is his first film using HD Video, and it’s a perfect match. The results are superb, thanks in part to the new Viper camera system and the great cinematographer, Harris Savides, who gave the film a classic cinemascope look. Unlike, say, “Miami Vice” it’s the best looking HD film I’ve seen. I’m officially sold.
Please don’t go into the film expecting a gruesome extension of “Seven” or a twisty-turny “Fight Club”, it’s “All the President’s Men” through and through - consummate professionals who live and die by the details and procedures of the job. Enjoy both films.