Northern California, July, 4th, 1969. An unknown assailant murders a young woman, Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes), and almost murders her lover, Mike Mageau (Lee Norris), as they sit in a car on loverís lane. Three weeks, a letter purportedly from the killer arrives at the San Francisco Chronicle. Other letters were sent to the San Francisco Examiner and the Vallejo Times-Herald. The killer identifies himself as the Zodiac, claims responsibility for the Ferrin murder and a murder eight months earlier. The killer also includes a cipher, which, if decoded, would reveal his identity. He also promises to continue his killing spree if the daily newspapers don't publish his letters and the ciphers.
While Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), an introspective, editorial cartoonist relatively new to the San Francisco Chronicle looks on with increasing interest, the Chronicle's ace crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), begins to cover the Zodiac killings. It isn't until the Zodiac strikes in San Francisco, however, that the San Francisco Police Department becomes involved. The murder in San Francisco brings two of San Francisco's finest, Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a well respected, ambitious homicide detective, and his partner, Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), to the case.
As the Zodiac's claims become more outlandish (he claims to have killed a dozen, then later almost three dozen people), the police have little choice but to take his threat to target a school bus full of children seriously. The Zodiac even calls for the help of a high-profile attorney, Melvin Belli (Brian Cox), who no stranger to basking in the media's attention, agrees to go on television to talk to the Zodiac. But as time passes, the leads dry up, the Zodiac grows frustratingly quiet, Avery succumbs to alcohol and drug abuse, a frustrated Toschi gets reassigned, leaving Graysmith to uncover the killer's identity. Like Avery and Toschi, though, Graysmith has to pay a price, the increasing strains his obsession with the Zodiac killer puts on his relationship with Melanie (ChloŽ Sevigny), his second wife.
It's surprising that Zodiac is Fincher's first film in five years. During that time, Fincherís name has been connected with several big-budget, high profile projects, but, as often happens in Hollywood, the projects either went to another director or got stuck in development. For Fincher, though, Zodiac was a labor of love for Fincher, who was raised in Northern California during the time period when the Zodiacís crime spree was headline news. Years later, Fincher was drawn back into the subject through Graysmith's books. Fincher decided early on, however, to go beyond Graysmith's books and have his screenwriter, James Vanderbilt (Darkness Falls, Basic, The Rundown), use primary source materials (i.e., original police reports), as a basis to work out who among the men suspected of being the Zodiac was the likeliest suspect.
What's not surprising is Fincher's meticulous attention to everything, e.g., set design, noirish lighting, editing, and scene construction. True to form (Fincher prefers pushing the boundaries of what can and can't be done technologically), Fincher filmed Zodiac on high-definition digital video cameras, Thompson Vipers. The Thompson Viper was first used by Michael Mann in 2004 on Collateral and two years later on Miami Vice for low-light, nighttime shooting (Mann used a mix of digital footage and traditional film stocks, though, for both films). Mel Gibson used HD video for Apocalypto, but opted to go with Panavision's Genesis camera system (first used last year on Scary Movie 4 no less).
The high-caliber cast gives uniformly strong performances. Robert Downey, Jr. channels his inner demons (i.e., his experiences with drug and alcohol abuse) to make Avery a sympathetic, if ultimately doomed character, driven as much by his ego (he becomes a media celebrity) as a desire to catch the Zodiac killer. Mark Ruffalo is equally good in a less extroverted role, but itís Jake Gyllenhaal who takes center stage in the last third as the increasingly obsessed Graysmith. Gyllenhaalís good at playing introspective, layered characters and he doesnít stumble here (actually the opposite). As lawyer-turned-media-celebrity Melvin Belli, Brian Cox does what he does best, portraying egocentric, but nonetheless appealing, characters. Anthony Edwards has less to do here, but gives a credible turn as Toschiís taciturn partner.
All thatís well and good (and commendable, as is Fincher and Vanderbilt including nods to Bullitt and Dirty Harry (both inspired by Dave Toschi and/or the Zodiac Killer), but potential moviegoers probably want to know whether Zodiac hangs together as a story, especially given that most (many?) moviegoers will know the ďendingĒ going in (as they would from any fictionalized story involving Jack the Ripper). For most of Zodiacís 158-minute running time, the storyline sticks close to the police procedural sub-genre, switching tracks and lead characters as Graysmith becomes the focal point. The transition between the two, though, isnít as smooth as it could have been. Fincher allows the first storyline (i.e., the chase for the Zodiac) to go slack around the midpoint, floundering there for twenty-thirty minutes, before picking up Graysmithís lone hunt for a killer no one cared about anymore.
But if you put together the facts surrounding the Zodiac killings, including the media sensation, Fincherís typically meticulous, sure-handed direction (including several suspense-filled scenes thatíd be perfect as a teaching aid in a film class), and top-drawer performances, and Zodiacís story-side faults can be forgiven (if not exactly excused). All together, that makes Zodiac one of 2007ís best (or is it better?) films. The year is still young, though.
© Mel Valentin, 2nd March, 2007
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