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Zodiac (2007)

August 27, 2007

written by: James Vanderbilt (adaptation) & Robert Graysmith (source material) 

produced by: Louis M. Phillips, Jamie Vanderbilt & Mike Medavoy

directed by: David Fincher

rated R (for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images.)

2 hrs. 36 min.

U. S. release date: March 2, 2007

DVD & Bluray release: July 24, 2007


Since “Se7en”, any film by director David Fincher is a must-see. I’ve haven’t been disappointed yet with anything he directs. From his visual style, his choice of storytelling and the actors he’s surrounds himself with, he’s a filmmaker who will always deliver. When I found out he was working on a movie about the Zodiac killer murders, my interest increased. That may sound a little morbid, right? Am I saying I like movies about serial killers? Well, not all of them. I’m simply into the psychology of it all, like anyone, I think “What kind of person commits such atrocious acts?” When I found out the film would be less serial killer and more police procedural and newspaper investigation, I was sold all the more. The lives of those investigating such crimes are just as interesting to me as those who commit them. So, this review comes with a bias of my being a Fincher fan, enjoying police and investigative procedurals, and really digging this cast.

The film opens on July 4th, 1969 near San Francisco, where we have Fincher immediately convey the era and appropriately set the tone. David Shire’s score adds to the uneasy atmosphere, as the camera pans across cookie-cutter suburbia. Then there’s the brutal shooting of  Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes) and Mike Mageau (Jimmi Simpson), by an unseen figure, in an “inspiration point” spot in Vallejo, made even more disturbing by the mundane and matter-of-fact way the killings take place. Then on August 1st,  a coded letter arrives in the press room of the San Francisco Chronicle, claiming to be from the killer, calling himself “Zodiac.” Crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) takes point on the story, though the paper’s editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is just as intrigued by the killer’s cryptic messages. Together, they make an odd pair of armchair sleuths, Graysmith being a clean-nosed introvert who never smokes or drinks and Avery being the exact opposite (in only a way that Downey Jr. can portray). Not only does their characterization suck you in, but their interplay is a delight.

The killings continue….on September 27th, the Zodiac killer stabs Bryan Hartnell  (Patrick Scott Lewis)  and Cecelia Shepard (Pell James) at Lake Berryessa in Napa County. Then on October 11th, cab driver Paul Stine (Charles Schneider) is shot and killed in Presidio Heights at the corner of Washington & Cherry. It’s then that we’re introduced to Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards),  the detectives assigned to the case who eventually work with detectives Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) in Vallejo and Ken Narlow (Donal Logue), in Napa, as well as others liaisons much to their frustration. The problem is, each new clue or suspect is cancelled out by insufficient evidence. Zodiac (or someone posing as him) continues to toy with authorities by speaking on the phone with celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) when he makes an appearance on a televised talk show, causing more frenzy than anything.

As Zodiac’s killing spree continues, the city is put under lockdown, while the media and populace are riveted by every scrap of detail revealed in Avery’s colorful reports. He went on to claime he killed 13 people and publicly bragged about it by sending letters to different newspapers in the vicinity. While the true body count may never be known, one thing is for certain….some people involved in the case became so fixated with finding the killer that their obsession ultimately led to their own destruction. Such is the case with Graysmith, who became the only one still determined to know who Zodiac is, to the point of distancing his wife (Chloe Sevigny) and kids with his obsession.

Due to what little was known of the killer, the film focuses on knowing the three main characters pretty well. This makes sense seeing that the main source material for the film is the Zodiac book that cartoonist Graysmith wound up writing. Fincher shows how each man invested a great deal into discovering who the Zodiac is, probably more than anyone should have, considering the molasses-like progression of the case. They work together, but primarily on their own, spending years chasing down every lead, and every time they seem to get close, they realize how far away they are. The effect the case has on their professional and private lives takes up the bulk of the second half of the movie, but it’s no less intriguing than the killings in the beginning.

This is a movie where the nitty-gritty of the investigation is as engrossing as the graphically depicted murders. In one point, Graysmith simply visits Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), a possible informant in one of the most frightening scenes in the entire film. All the more creepy and uneasy is the fact that  Graysmith has no weapon or back up. He’s just one of us. Another favorite scene is a simple interrogation filmed in such a creepy manner, adding to Fincher’s already taut, suspenseful feel. In it, Toschi, Armstrong and Mulanax question Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch, an actor known for his creepiness), a potential suspect in the case. It’s a quiet, uncomfortable and unfancy scene but nevertheless nerve-wracking. However, a handwriting expert working with the police, Sherwood Merril (Phillip Baker Hall) says that Allen could not have written the Zodiac letters. Such a revelation certainly takes a toll on all involved in the investigation.

“Zodiac” is a film that demands repeat viewings, in order to catch all the deliberate details and focus on what you didn’t see the first time. It’s just that good. While Fincher might be back in familiar territory, “Zodiac” couldn’t be more different from “Se7en” (a  Fincher favorite), in that it is more akin to crime dramas such as “Cold Case” or “CSI”, just with more of a direct realistic feel.  It may run almost two and a half hours, but at no time do you notice the time. Fincher never loses sight of highlighting the dedicated individuals who nearly destroyed their lives trying to solve the case.

Fincher has made a movie that is, as Roger Ebert put it, “the “All the President’s Men” of  serial killer movies, with Woodward and Bernstein playing a cop and a cartoonist.” I couldn’t sum it up any better that. Some may have watched this movie and were disappointed, probably because they were expecting it to be a serial killer movie which led them possibly check their watch, I imagine. Too bad for them. I wonder if those viewers even knew what the movie was about before going into it? Fincher ignores the tried-and-true techniques of so many previous serial killer movies, and instead originates his own true crime thriller. It’s surprising how thoroughly it reveals the facts and details of the case without ever being tedious or exploitative – making it an impressive and absorbing film experience.

RATING: ****

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