Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 9, 2007)
After a long delay, cult favorite direction David Fincher returned to the screen with 2007’s Zodiac. For the first time, he took on a true story, as Zodiac looked at a notorious northern California serial killer whose violent “career” began in 1968. The film starts with his second slaying on July 4, 1969, and then introduces us to those who will become involved in his case.
Much of the film concentrates on folks at the San Francisco Chronicle. We meet young political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and alcoholic reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). The paper gets an odd code from the killer who demands that they run it or he’ll embark on a shooting spree. When deciphered, the message reveals the nutbag’s fantasies, and he eventually gives himself a name: “The Zodiac”.
This killer strikes again in September, as he assails a couple by a lake. These additional developments keep the Zodiac in the news, and he eventually brings his game to San Francisco when he shoots a cabbie. This gets the SFPD involved, and we meet Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). The rest of the film follows the path the cops and the reporters take to find the identity of the Zodiac.
To date, Fincher has only directed six films over 15 years, and there’s not a dud in the bunch. I’d classify 1997’s The Game as the weakest of his releases. 1992’s Alien 3 is probably the most flawed of his flicks, but I still find a lot to like in it, while The Game just leaves me a little cold.
While I’ve enjoyed all of Fincher’s efforts, 1995’s Se7en remains his masterwork, the one against which all others must be judged. Zodiac creates the most obvious room for comparison with that classic since both involve serial killers. However, they take very different paths, so Zodiac doesn’t come across as an attempt by Fincher to emulate his prior glories. He creates something different here that’s quite compelling.
As I went into Zodiac, I worried that it’d be something of a dud. Sure, I maintain a lot of faith in Fincher, but the nature of the subject matter caused concern. It’s no secret that no one ever conclusively determined the identity of the Zodiac, so that means we get a film without the usual “we got him!” conclusion. Add to that the movie’s long running time of more than two and a half hours and this looked like it could become a yawner.
That makes me pleased to report that Fincher pulls off a minor miracle with Zodiac. At no point do any of its potential negatives like its length and its lack of a clear conclusion mar it. Instead, Fincher manages to milk the material for all its worth to create a dynamic, involving investigation.
Fincher fully embraces the era in which Zodiac takes place. Superficially, he imbues the film with all of the period trappings; anachronism seekers will likely leave this one disappointed. Beyond that, Fincher also manages to make Zodiac feel like it comes from the late Sixties/early Seventies. The movie fits with efforts from that time, as it ignores the hyperactivity and quick-cutting of more recent efforts.
This doesn’t make Zodiac seem like a self-conscious throwback, though. Fincher doesn’t go the pretentious Good German route to create a flick that shoves its cinematic inspirations in our face. The picture’s period feel emerges in a subtle way.
Fincher proves to be a strong storyteller as well. He takes his time to tell the tale but he doesn’t waste space. Indeed, despite the movie’s length, nothing here feels extraneous. All of the elements come across as necessary pieces of the puzzle, so don’t expect fat along the way. This is a tight, well-told piece.
To round out all these successes, Zodiac boasts an excellent cast. They all embrace the low-key nature of the film, and their choices fit the story well. Downey proves especially effective. Yeah, it’s probably not much of a stretch for him to play a substance abuser, but he brings real life to Avery beyond his eccentricities. Indeed, Downey probably downplays the character’s quirkiness. He could’ve made Avery nothing more than goofy comic relief, but he lends depth and soul to this troubled personality.
I doubt that David Fincher will ever direct a film that I prefer to Se7en. I consider that effort to be the best flick of the Nineties and is maybe one of my top ten movies of all-time. However, Zodiac makes a strong case to be number two on the Fincher chart. Tense, taut and involving, it provides an excellent piece of work.