Director David Fincher has delivered some of the more intensely dramatic movies of the last 10 years. Se7en, The Game, Fight Club and Panic Room all come to mind. This fact alone would be enough to lead us to believe that his latest serial flick, like Se7en before it, would be a rollercoaster of twists and turns leading up to a shocker of an ending. It turns out that Zodiac, based on the real life killer that plagued San Francisco in the 1970s, is anything but a shocker. In fact, we already know how it is going to end, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t want to watch it anyway.
Zodiac stars Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) as Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who would eventually go on to write a few best selling books about the infamous Zodiac killer. The story follows Graysmith’s journey from looking over the shoulder of crime beat reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) to working with Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) years later as he worked to uncover the true identity of elusive Zodiac. The elusiveness of the Zodiac was only heightened by the fact that he would taunt the public of the Bay area by writing letters to the papers or calling into television talk shows to profess his love for murder. The spectacle was enough to put the entire city of San Francisco into a state of terror for over a decade, its denizens cautiously awaiting the next sign of the Zodiac, or worse yet, the dead body.
It seems odd to make a film about a real life serial killer whose case is still open and to this day remains unsolved, but David Fincher pulls it off as only he can. The tension of the film continues to build from one letter to the next, one murder to the next, and while we know it doesn’t lead to anything we are intrigued nonetheless. Fincher’s style is also unmistakable in the film. Visually he uses long, slow pans over the city and some cool camera angles (birds-eye view in some spots) to give the film a constantly fresh feel, helping to dilute the fact that the flick is almost 3 hours long. Also complimentary is the score, which has a funky, light beat that gives the film a much needed rhythm. These things are signs of Fincher’s immaculate attention to detail, a trait that sets him apart from your average director.
Another sign of his attention to detail and ultimately another reason why the film succeeds is some superb casting. Robert Downey Jr. steals much of the film despite the fact that his character fades away toward the end. He is as erratic as ever, displaying a sharp wit that gives the audience something more than just Jake Gyllenhaal’s boyish good looks. Gyllenhaal, an actor of whom I am not normally a fan, plays the na¯ve Robert Graysmith quite well. Graysmith was the boy scout to Avery’s spastic attention whore, and Gyllenhaal nails it with a sense of innocence that seems natural even though it is at times a bit of an annoyance. The rest of the cast falls into place very well, including Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, who have great on screen chemistry as the pair of inspectors tasked out to find the Zodiac.
Ultimately my only problem with a film like this is a two-fold affair. On one side, the film is painfully long at 2 hours and 40 minutes. If you have an self diagnosed case of ADD like myself you will find your eyes burning and your mind wandering as the film wears on. But despite the length of his film, Fincher pieces together a story that does not loiter, it just has a lot to say. Sadly based on much of the story, this film could have been longer. Heaven forbid they ever come out with a Director’s Cut a la Oliver Stone’s Alexander.
The other inherent problem I found with Zodiac is that it is hard to get behind a film which you know has no real ending. We know that they are not going to catch the killer, we know that the case is still a mystery today and yet we are somehow interested in it anyway. Could it be that we are so enamored with real life serial killers, or is it that we just want to freak ourselves out that the real Zodiac may still be out there? No matter what your reason, I would recommend giving this one a look. Just don’t plan on being home early.
Zodiac is in theaters March 2, has a running time of 160 minutes and is rated R for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images.