Published Mar 02, 2007The serial killer film has become such an exploited cliché that one approaches such things with trepidation. However, Zodiac director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) has not only brought a fresh look to the genre, hes reinvented himself in the process. Zodiac concerns the serial killer of the same name, who in the late 60s and into the 70s, terrorised Southern California and taunted the police and media with his crimes.
He was never caught and most of the murders attributed to him remain unsolved, open cases to this day. But Zodiac is not about the killer himself though obviously, his crimes and personality play significant roles in the film but rather about the lives of three men he drastically impacted. Theres the reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a brilliant correspondent whose obsession with the case leads him downward in a spiral of booze and pills; theres the homicide detective, Dave Toschi (a stellar Mark Ruffalo), whose work is frustrated by infighting and a lack of communication between different police jurisdictions; and theres the editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose obsession is peripheral at first but becomes a central figure in fact, its his exhaustive book that the film is based on.
Zodiac follows these three men in their pursuit of leads and clues that dont add up; as each of them gets more intense, or more resigned to their failures, their professional and personal lives begin to unravel. But like another talkie, character-driven 70s piece, All the Presidents Men, Zodiac is about the process of pursuit, not the soap opera lives of its protagonists, or even the criminals they pursue. And in keeping with the spirit of a film like Presidents Men, Fincher has chucked every stylistic twitch or cinematic habit hes ever shown to date Zodiac has a remarkably specific look and feel that makes it not a film set in the 1970s but a film wholly of the 1970s.
From its lack of deep focus lensing and elaborate tracking shots to the subtle shifts of wardrobe and makeup to the very geography of San Francisco, Fincher achieves a miracle in not calling one iota of attention to his accomplishment. What he wants to do instead is bring viewers along with the characters as they butt heads and hit brick walls of progress; as Robert Graysmith descends even deeper into his obsessions (losing his job and his family in the process), we become even more attached to his goal not to see the Zodiac brought to justice but to look him in the eye, knowing who he was, and letting the Zodiac know that he knows.
With a running time of 160 minutes, Zodiac feels like a beloved directors cut of a cult classic were just being given the extended cut right away and as such, yes, it could be tighter, to be sure. But given the space to play with, Fincher takes this story in fascinating, contemporary directions: the role of the media in promoting or enabling attention-getting behaviours; the impact of infighting and politics within law enforcement; the evolution of criminology and forensic science versus psychological evaluation; even Dostoyevskys ideas about guilt find their way into the piece.
Fincher hasnt made a film since 2002s Panic Room and Zodiac is the absolute opposite of that exercise in stylistic tension this time out, substance trumps style and the hounds just outside the door are our own trepidations, our fears of the unknown that lurk in dark hearts. (Paramount)