Dir. David Fincher, US, 2007, 158 mins
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr, Chloe Sevigny, Anthony Edwards,
Review by Matthew Rodgers
David Fincher returns skulking in the shadows of the genre that established him as one of the great directors of this generation with the darker than black Seven. As always, seeking a challenge (this is the guy that fought xenomorphs, an entire studio, cast and crew on Alien3) he avoids the clichés that his sin-themed masterpiece influenced in the increasingly tame copycats (the film of the same title being the most obvious) Taking Lives andThe Bone Collector, to create an intricate character study, not of the lives taken or the killer themselves, but of the individuals consumed by their obsession to catch the elusive Zodiac.
Never has a “based on a true story” seemed to resonate as the truth, or as close to it, as Fincher and his own personal investigations take us. Focusing on the serial killer who caused widespread panic and intrigue in San Francisco with an unknown body count, and even more interestingly an unknown identity, Zodiac is the story of four very different men: Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) is the San Francisco Chronicle’s cartoonist charged with the task of deciphering the killers coded messages; Paul Avery (Downey Jr.) is the paper's crime specialist whose scepticism provides the movie's greatest emotional transition; Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Edwards) are police department inspectors who are the complete antithesis of one another but with the single goal of catching their target. They are just as much victims of the zodiac killer and each will metaphorically lose their life during the course of the film.
The killer leads the film's protagonists down many a blind alley littered with red herrings but, as an audience, it’s important to note that this isn’t your standard follow the bread crumbs “who-dunnit”; Zodiac provides little or no cathartic pay-off for the viewer or the characters, and is entirely a movie of precision exposition with very little denouement. This could leave a sense of frustration by the time the credits role but if it helps you to understand even on the smallest scale how these men who traded their own American dreams felt then Fincher has succeeded.
The commendations don’t stop there though because, as expected, Zodiac is a visually striking film, perhaps not in the student filmmaker showiness of POV shots through a coffee pot handle a la Panic Room but each frame is occupied, despite the languid nature of the plot, with constantly busy audio or visually technical brilliance. The most shocking scene in the film, the lakeside murder of two picnicking youths, is wince-inducing thanks to the accompanying sound to each brutal knife puncture - cold, clinical and effective.
Actors would queue around the block to work with Fincher so it’s no surprise that we are offered a starry ensemble of proven actors. Gyllenhaal shrugs off the initial unease at being a work-a-day father to grow (or shrink as the plot mechanism dictates) into his obsession. Ruffalo continues to be the perennially under-rated character actor he has been since You Can Count On Me (2000) and Anthony Edwards emerges from the “Where are they now” pages to deliver a restrained turn as the only member of the quartet strong enough to walk away. Unsurprisingly, the resurgent Downey Jr.’s charismatically sombre descent into obscurity is expertly measured.
Zodiac is a movie about who will catch the killer rather than actually capturing him, along the way questioning identity, masculinity, and only slight tedium from a director constructing a case study that results in his most mature and controlled film yet.