Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 3/25/07
One of the most infamous serial killers to emerge in San Francisco during the late 1960s was a mysterious killer known as the Zodiac Killer. The Zodiac Killer was a killer who taunted the press through mysterious letters in the early 1970s. The mystery remains unsolved as its identity yet it remains one of the most infamous murders. The notoriety of the case and murders spread through pop culture that involved two books by cartoonist Robert Graysmith. One of them has now become a feature film by David Fincher that is simply entitled Zodiac.
Based on Graysmith's book with a script by James Vanderbilt, Zodiac tells the story of the mysterious investigation of the murders that involved two cops and two journalists including Graysmith. When the investigation goes further, it leads into a puzzling world of madness that nearly destroys their minds. Directed by David Fincher of such films as Se7en, Fight Club, and Panic Room, it's a psychological mystery that explores one of the most notorious murders. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, John Carroll Lynch, Donal Logue, Elias Koteas, Dermont Mulroney, Phillip Baker Hall, Adam Goldberg, Clea DuVall, and Brian Cox. Zodiac is a harrowing, puzzling thriller from David Fincher.
It's July 4, 1969 when a couple stopped at a beach side cliff when suddenly, a mysterious man arrives, kills the woman and leaves the man wounded. A month later at the San Francisco Chronicle, a cartoonist named Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is doing his work on cartoons when a letter is sent to the editor of the paper, Al Hyman (Ed Setrakian). Hyman gives the letter to his publisher Charles Theiriot (John Terry) who reads it to the staff including Graysmith and reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) where attached to the letter is a strange code. Avery believes the murders is connected to one year before that Christmas. He calls Sgt. Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) to confirm the connection of the murders where reports about the murders circulate in the San Francisco area. Graysmith is interested by the whole murders since he is very good with puzzles. After another murder in a lake where a man named Bryan Hartnell (Patrick Scott Lewis) was wounded but his girlfriend (Pell James) was dead but claims he saw the man wearing a costume. Another murder involving a cab driver lead to a full investigation.
Leading the investigation are David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) who went to the corner on the night that was Armstrong's birthday. Immediately, the case becomes public with Cpt. Marty Lee (Dermont Mulroney) gets involved with the help of a code-breaker named Sherwood Morrill (Phillip Baker Hall) looking into handwritings and stuff. With Avery doing a lot of the reporting on the killings, a puzzle is made while Graysmith brings a lot of theories and ideas about what's going on about the murders. Toschi and Armstrong collaborate with the Chronicle where by 1970, the investigation gets more intense with Graysmith watching in the background. Things get worse when a woman (Ione Skye) claimed she was captured as Avery becomes more troubling with the reporting, even after getting a letter from the Zodiac killer. When a known attorney named Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) is contacted by the killer, he tries to talk to him via television but nothing comes around until Christmas when he received a letter.
With the investigation finally getting leads, they find a suspect in Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) who becomes a big suspect but because of evidence and such, he is cleared. After some tension between Avery and Toschi, Avery is forced to leave the Chronicle due to his erratic behavior and by 1972, Armstrong leaves as Graysmith later meets Toschi at a screening for Dirty Harry. For now, the case is closed and going nowhere. Four years later as Toschi is still in the force and Graysmith still a cartoonist when Duffy Jennings takes Avery's job. Graysmith takes interest in writing a book about the investigation while trying to talk to Avery about doing the book. Graysmith ends up doing the book himself where he finds more loose ends and asks for help from Morrill and Toschi about the loose ends. With Graysmith taking on the investigation, like Avery and Toschi, he starts to descend to madness which affects his family life and marriage to Melanie (Chloe Sevigny). Finding new clues and people including a woman who knew Leigh at a party named Linda Ferrin (Clea Duvall). When Graysmith goes public, things become troubling when a letter from the Zodiac re-emerged but it's linked to Toschi who is suspected for writing the new letter.
With Graysmith getting closer, he tries to turn to Toschi, Mulanax, and Mel Nicholai (Zach Grenier) for help. They wouldn't publicly but when Graysmith believes someone else might've been the killer, he gets more than he bargained for. Finally, Graysmith confides in Toschi as they are forced to believe that the Zodiac murder might be unsolved after all.
While the film is based on a true story and is set from 1969 to 1991, the whole film doesn't play up as a conventional thriller or suspense film. Instead, it plays like a puzzle that doesn't get finished or has no sense of closure. Instead, the film plays up as a three-part act. The first being the opening of the Zodiac investigation. The second is about the suspicion of Arthur Leigh Allen being the killer which is based on theory that is suggested by the book. The third act is about Robert Graysmith and his own investigation that leads to him writing the book.
While the result pays off, it isn't entirely perfect on few instances. While director David Fincher has created a superb, unconventional mystery, the film does move slowly in its pacing though it is deliberate to understand what is going on. The eventual two-hour, 40-minute running time as opposed to his early three-hours and some odd minutes does make this film to be very long. Yet, it still works on some level including how Graysmith meets Melanie, his relationship with Avery, the friendship between Toschi and Armstrong, and everything else.
If Fincher is known for one thing that is prominent in all of his films, it's atmosphere. Shooting on location in San Francisco, entirely on digital camera, the film looks and feels like a 1970s film of sorts from its production and costumes, to the look. Even some of the camera work is reminiscent of early 70s American cinema based on its dark, shady look and how time moves on to those moments of San Francisco. Part of the film is like a reporters/investigators film where the guys just take a break and be themselves with a bit of backstory on who they are.
Then when the suspense happens and the murders are shown, it is done with a fear and terror where the audience knows what's going to happen but couldn't ignore. Fincher stays true to the timeline and structure from screenwriter James Vanderbilt though there's a scene involving a projectionist (Charles Fleischer) that doesn't totally work. Yet, it raises more questions on the killings as well as suspects. In reality, the film is about three men taking on a case that eventually descends them into madness and how they come out of it. Despite a few of the film's flaws, David Fincher has crafted a solid yet intriguing film.
Cinematographer Harris Savides does some amazing camera work in capturing the nighttime look of San Francisco with some intimate lighting in many of the film's night, interior shots as well as some gorgeous exterior lights. The sunlight scenes also work to convey the beauty and griminess of some of the locations. Savides' work is truly amazing. Production designer Donald Graham Burt and art director Keith P. Cunningham do excellent work in capturing the look and feel of 1970s San Francisco with the looks of the TVs, the cars, and everything to present that feel of the 70s including a horrifying design on the trailer of Leigh filled with some peculiar creatures.
Costume designer Casey Storm also plays to the film's 70s look with the wonderfully prim clothing of Chloe Sevigny to the suits that Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards wear along with Robert Downey Jr.'s hippie-like, ragged clothes. Editor Angus Wall does some nice editing to convey the action of the killing as well as bringing the tense atmosphere of the investigation with perspective shots and jump cuts. Sound designer Ren Klyce does some amazing sound work to convey the sound of the murders, TVs, phones, and the opening murder sequence that is mixed with the song Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan. Composer David Shire, who is known for his score work in 70s classic like Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men brings an ominous film score that plays up to the suspense and atmosphere of the film. The soundtrack also includes cuts from Marvin Gaye, Santana, and other late 60s/early 70s songs.
The film's cast is wonderfully assembled with some memorable small performances from Pell James, Ione Skye, Patrick Scott Lewis, Jimmi Simpson as an older version of a victim of the Zodiac, James LeGros as an investigator, John Getz as the new Chronicle editor who kicks out Avery, Adam Goldberg, Charles Fleischer, Clea Duvall, Zach Grenier, Donal Logue as investigator Ken Narlow, Candy Clark as Hyman's secretary, John Terry, Ed Setrakian, and Charles Schneider as the ill-fated cab driver.
Playing the different roles of the Zodiac killer are Richmond Arquette, Bob Stephenson, and John Lacy who each bring in a great presence to the killer without giving away anything to the audience. John Carroll Lynch is excellent as the mysterious Arthur Leigh Allen with a swagger that makes him suspicious and complex about the idea if he's really the man. Brian Cox is great as the celebrity defense attorney who tries to talk to the Zodiac while Phillip Baker Hall is also in top form as a manuscript expert.
Chloe Sevigny is excellent as Graysmith's girlfriend Melanie who tries to ground Graysmith in his role of being a family man though is forced to see his madness up close. Elias Koteas is great as a sergeant that confirms the murders to the press as he helps out Graysmith looking into files and such. Anthony Edwards is great as Toschi partner Armstrong whose years in working the investigation begins to burn him out as the more cynical, realistic cop who has yet to try sushi.
Mark Ruffalo is in amazing form as David Toschi who becomes obsessed with a corner where one of the killings happen as he later tries to bring himself back into reality only to see that he might've overlooked something. Robert Downey Jr. is also brilliant as the eccentric Paul Avery whose unconventional reporting makes him a sense of annoyance to some as his obsession leads to his own madness as he is forced to retreat. Jake Gyllenhaal gives an outstanding performance as a young cartoonist who looks on in the background only to take over as he sees how far he nearly loses it. It's a more mature yet solid performance from Gyllenhaal who proves that he ain’t no pretty boy or weirdo.
While not as entertaining as Fight Club or Se7en, Zodiac is still a very solid, entrancing film from David Fincher. Fans of Fincher's work will no doubt be challenged by his unconventional style to the mystery genre though audiences will have to take note of the film's long running time. With a great cast led by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo, it's a film that not only pays tribute to the films of the 70s but also to the people who worked tirelessly on the Zodiac murders, which remains unsolved. In the end, Zodiac is a thrilling film from David Fincher that shouldn't be ignored.
David Fincher Films: Alien 3 - (Se7en) - (The Game) - (Fight Club) - (Panic Room) - (Zodiac-Director's Cut) - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - The Social Network - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo