June 12, 2007
Among the many cases of serial killers that have become part of popular culture over the years, the case of the Zodiac killer is probably the most intriguing and fascinating of the modern era due to fact that, like the infamous British killer, Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac was never caught and his identity remains a mystery to this day. Operating in Northern California, the Zodiac Killer terrorized the region in the late 60s and early 70s, murdering at least 5 people (although he claimed there were more) during the decade. However, what made the Zodiac so intriguing was the fact that he began to send a series of taunting letters to the press and the police, challenging them and including cryptograms with hidden messages. Almost 40 years later, the case caught the interest of scriptwriter James Vanderbilt and director David Fincher, who fascinated by Robert Graysmith's book about the case, decided to adapt it to the big screen.
"Zodiac" is a careful reconstruction of the Zodiac killer case, following the members of the press and the police whom got involved through course of the investigation. After attacking Darlene Ferrin ( Ciara Hughes) and Mike Mageau (Lee Norris) at Vallejo, the Zodiac sends his first letter to the local police and three newspapers where he claims responsibility over the crime. At the San Francisco Chronicle, journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) becomes the top crime reporter on the case, while at the same time cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes an interest on the cryptograms sent by the killer. Graysmith's interest will take him from aiding Avery in his work to actively investigating the case on his own by following Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). However, his work on the Zodiac killer will begin to take its toll on his own homely life. And the crimes continue.
Written by James Vanderbilt, the movie follows very closely the detailed accounts of the case as they appear in Robert Graysmith's book and police reports. Due to this extreme care for realism, "Zodiac" is more a police procedural film than a typical movie about serial killers, as in this film the story focuses on those who are following the criminal instead of on the victims or the criminal himself. As the crime never had a proper "conclusion", Vanderbilt wisely makes his story not only about the puzzle itself, but also adds touches about the dramatic consequences of obsessing over an impossible to solve mystery. While long and intricate, the development of the story is remarkably good in its narrative, as the slow way clues are unveiled helps to keep the suspense rising and makes the plot captivating and never boring.
While Vanderbilt is truly responsible for a lot of the film's narrative structure, it was Fincher who decided to take a realistic approach in their conception of the film, and this can also be seen in the visual aspect of the movie. With extreme and meticulous care and Harris Savides' excellent cinematography, Fincher recreates not only the look of early 70s California, but also the tense atmosphere of paranoia and distrust that the Zodiac killer created among the population during his reign of terror. As written above, the storyline moves slowly, but Fincher successfully manages to keep a good pace while also presenting all the facts of the case. Finally, while this is not an action packed movie, Fincher creates a series of extremely effective scenes of suspense, where thanks to a subtle use of atmosphere and mood, he brings back the real horrors of the Zodiac killer.
The acting is another of the film's strong points, as even when there wasn't a serious exploration of the characters (the film was more about how the case affected them), the cast was simply outstanding in their roles. The always effective Robert Downey Jr. makes an excellent job as reporter Paul Avery, and even adds touches of dark humor that makes Avery look more human. However, the highlight of the film is Mark Ruffalo, who as Inspector David Toschi, delivers his best performance so far and proves his worth as an actor. While at times overshadowed by both Downey and Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal remains effective and makes a good job as cartoonist Robert Graysmith. "Zodiac" is also benefited by the excellent performances of the supporting cast, which includes Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Anthony Edwards, and John Carroll Lynch making a haunting performance as Arthur Leigh Allen.
Probably the film's worst enemy will be the misconceptions created by its marketing team, as this is definitely not the typical movie about serial killers, "Zodiac" is a movie about the terror the Zodiac spawned and the consequences it had in a group of people. Audiences expecting a flashy horror movie like Fincher's previous film, "Se7en", will be sorely disappointed, "Zodiac" is definitely a different kind of beast. The long runtime and slow pace the movie has will definitely be another of the elements that may cause some discomfort; although as written above, Fincher managed to keep the movie moving with a good rhythm. Finally, some may also be disappointed by the way the plot reaches its conclusion, but given the fact that the case remains unsolved, it was truly the best way to do it without compromising historical accuracy.
Perfectly crafted thanks to a solid work of writing and directing, "Zodiac" is definitely one of director David Fincher's best films. It is a movie that reveals him as a mature director and proves that the promise he showed in "Se7en" and "Fight Club" wasn't a case of luck. It may be too early too tell by now, but in my opinion, "Zodiac" will go on history as one of the finest police procedural films ever made.
Buy "Zodiac" (2007)