As an unsolved mysteries fanatic, the Zodiac killings are among the most perplexing and frustrating – ever. Nearly everyone is familiar with the Zodiac – a killer who preyed on young couples and taunted the police and media with bizarre letters and ciphers – but few seem to know that he has never been fully identified and the case remains open to this day. Laden with false leads and next to no physical evidence, the case is exhaustively examined in David Fincher’s Zodiac.
Opening with the Zodiac’s first killing, Fincher never lets us out of his grasp. The Zodiac’s first letter shows up to the San Francisco Chronicle and the dilemma of whether or not to run his first cipher unfolds. Among the first individuals to get wind of the Zodiac’s methods are cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhall) and writer Paul Avery (Downey Jr.) As the killings continue, Inspectors Armstrong (Edwards) and Toschi (Ruffalo) from the San Francisco Police Department begin their investigation with the cooperation of neighboring counties. The Zodiac is headline news daily, leaving the city of San Francisco in a constant state of panic. As time passes, however, and evidence and memories begin to fade, Graysmith finds his obsession with identifying the killer growing exponentially.
Die-hard Fincher fans will likely be disappointed with his style in this offering. Shot entirely on digital video, there aren’t any instantly memorable shots and few Fincher trademarks. He translates Graysmith’s book very matter-of-factly, but the fascination with the material is never-ending and the suspense is, at times, nearly unbearable. A scene in which Graysmith visits the house Bob Vaughn, a key link in the case, is one of the most effectively shot suspense scenes of recent memory.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give Zodiac is that it kept my full attention for its lengthy, and rarely extraneously so, runtime of 160 minutes. Those expecting a full-on thriller had best get the information elsewhere as Zodiac is much more of a police procedural drama. This is a realistic-feeling portrayal of the facts of the case, and it is all appropriately understated.
The cast is superb. Jake Gyllenhaal is effective as Graysmith, a likable bookworm whose innocence (he doesn’t drink, smoke, or seemingly do anything bad) gets him far. If there is a scene-stealer, it is Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, a reporter who, at one time, found himself the subject of one of Zodiac’s letters. Often drunk or high and always witty, Downey nails the part. Mark Ruffalo has a larger part than advertised and portrays Toschi as a dynamic cop who, while he doesn’t want to give up on the case over time, feels at times as though he should. Excellent supporting roles are turned in by Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, and John Carroll Lynch.
Zodiac will likely play to mixed reactions. It may be too heavy on the facts for some and not thrilling enough for others, but the inevitability remains that this true-life unsolved mystery is one of the most fascinating in history. Bringing an in-depth account to the big screen whilst maintaining suspense and cohesion is no small feat, but Fincher has pulled it off. It may not be his most groundbreaking film, but it is one of his most important ones.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 160 Minutes
Rating: R for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images.
Theatrical Release: March 2, 2007
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: James Vanderbilt. Based upon the book by Robert Graysmith.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch