Film review by: Witney Seibold


            David Fincher’s “Zodiac” is not only one of the best films of the year, but probably one of the better crime films of the decade. I was a little afraid; I had seen a few dozen films, it was already March, and I had yet to see anything truly impressive. Then “Zodiac” came along and blew me out of the water.

            Fincher, usually known for cobalt-flavored, quiet, snaky stylized camera movements (“Panic Room”), snarky hyperactive/dark comments on male culture (“Fight Club”), and for revitalizing the serial killer drama (“Seven”), has now synthesized his talents into a calm, careful, intelligent, authentic, and incredibly well-told tale of the real-life Zodiac Killer, who terrorized San Francisco in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.


            For those of you unfamiliar with the Zodiac case:


            After a series of murders in SF, a man, calling himself “Zodiac” began sending enigmatic puzzles to local newspapers. Letters were often published from the killer, and the puzzles revealed the man’s obsessions and darkness. Only one person was ever attacked by him, and lived. He once called into a TV talk show to discuss things with Melvin Belli. There was a long drop off, and then, about a decade later, he reappeared, killing a few more. The police were hot on his trail, but never caught him. The case remains open to this day.


            The film is told from several perspectives. One is from the eyes of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the SF newspaper’s cartoonist and puzzle aficionado, and one whose book the film is based. Robert sees the police floundering, and his most passionate co-worker Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) succumb to paranoia and alcohol. He sees inter-jurisdictional debate amongst different police counties. After a third of the film, the perspective shifts to the eyes of the two officers most closely associated with the case, David Toschi and William Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards). Toschi and Armstrong go about their police work, questioning people in drab factories and dirty beige rooms. Toschi begins to obsess over finding the man, even after years of a cold trail. Eventually, the case dries up completely.


            Then Graysmith comes back to center screen, discovering some vital pieces of circumstantial evidence, and picks things up again. His new second wife Melanie (Chloë Sevigny) tries to support him, despite his pathological need to solve puzzles. Graysmith claimed in his book and in the film that during his own personal investigations, he began receiving mysterious phone calls. When asked why he needs to capture a long-forgotten local boogieman, a decade after he has slain, he merely replies “I need to look him in the face; let him know that I know.”

             The film makes a good case for who the actual killer was, although the killer was never officially found.

            Every one of the actors involved is at the top of their game. Downey is perfect as the put-upon reporter who no one has the gumption to fire, and Ruffalo is particularly excellent as a hard-boiled cop who slowly becomes a defeated cop. Gyllenhaal is a very good young actor, and while he may not have as much weight as he could have had, he still makes the part work; we buy his pathological obsession. Even the indispensable Brian Cox shows up as Belli.


            Just as pertinent is the film’s authenticity. This film could have been made in 1971, and have looked the same (some of Fincher’s trademark CGI camera flourished notwithstanding). The big, brown empty offices, the cigarette machines, the clothing and the colors bear the musty, institutional odor of the early 1970s. Even Ruffalo’s suits are dead-on. I was a young boy in the early 1980s, and the film stabbed me with nostalgia; I could almost smell the courthouses and office supplies. There’s even a wonderful moment when the character go to see a movie, and the building is orange and brown and flat. The scene was shot in Mann’s National theater in Westwood, which has not been redecorated at all since it opened in 1969. Go to the National if you can. It’s slated to close soon, and it deserves to be seen.


            Even the dialogue sounds true to the era, and evolves as time passes. A big problem with a lot of period pieces is that the actors, however good they may be at emoting, still talk and have subtle behaviors that belie the year they were born (The recent “Pride & Prejudice” was rather guilty of this: modern people in period dress). Screenwriter James Vanderbilt (usually behind mediocre films like “Basic” and “Darkness Falls”) pays very close attention to the way people speak.


            “Zodiac” also moves at a wonderful pace: slightly slower than you would expect from Fincher. The film runs 158 minutes, and doesn’t waste a frame. The story unfolds naturally and easily. The point is never forced, and the violence is never showcased in action-story beats. This can be frustrating to those who want a quick and climactic close to the case. But this is not an action/suspense story of apprehending a killer, it’s about losing yourself to fear, obsession, and frustrating mystery.

             This is a film worth going out of your way to see.

Published in: on July 20, 2007 at 10:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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