Mark Reviews Movies

ZODIAC

3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brain Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue

MPAA Rating: R (for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images)

Running Time: 2:38

Release Date: 3/2/07


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Review by Mark Dujsik

The entire third act of Zodiac is about one man's personal obsession with the truth, but its first two acts are a lot more complicated. They are about the obsession of the public, fueled by the obsession of the news media's self-importance, which helps to confound the process of justice within the law enforcement community, whose own obsession with proper procedure and jurisdiction lines do enough damage to an investigation that the case of the Zodiac Killer, which started in 1969, is still an open case in some parts of California to this day. It's an uncomfortable, polygamous marriage between the press, the public, and the police in the information age, helped and hindered by the gift and curse of widespread communication. While each participant in this uneasy alliance has its own share of the blame for the case going unsolved, David Fincher's film doesn't hold any single entity responsible but instead observes how each has its own internal faults that when coupled with the failings of the others creates a catch-22. No one wins, except for the killer, who, in his method, seemingly fashioned a game aimed directly at these weaknesses. Whatever the killer's intentions were is and will probably ever be as much a mystery as his identity.

On the fourth of July in 1969, a young woman picks up a teenage boy for a trip to the lover's lane area in Vallejo, California. A strange car slowly passes them by; he's afraid it's the woman's husband. When the car returns and stops behind them, the driver gets out, shines a flashlight at them, and shoots them both. The woman dies; the boy survives. Less then a month later, a letter arrives at the San Francisco Chronicle in which the author takes credit for the murder of the young woman and two other seemingly unconnected killings nine months prior. Included in the letter is a cryptogram, in which cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes an interest, and a threat to murder more people if the code is not published on the front page. The editors arrive at a decision to place the cipher further in the edition, and crime beat reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), whom Graysmith hovers around constantly, begins his own investigations. Almost two months later, another young couple is attacked. The man survives; the woman does not. A few weeks later, a cab driver is shot dead, bringing in Inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) to the case.

The film opens with a title saying it is "based on actual case files," and it is clear that screenwriter James Vanderbilt (working off a pair of books by Graysmith) has done his homework. Once the detectives enter the story, the film is meticulous in attention to procedural details. Subtitles give the date, location, and amount of time that has passed. The passage of time is vital here, as weeks, months, eventually years go by without any activity and little breakthroughs in the case. Fincher and editor Angus Wall work at a methodical rate in pacing the film, which runs at almost two hours and forty minutes, but it is a length that is necessary to establish a sense of forgetfulness as to what the case is about. The killings themselves are shown early on with a palpable sense of dread and a discomforting verisimilitude. Fincher times them suddenly and portrays them in violent realism. The attack on the second couple the story covers is particularly gruesome, despite a lack of overt gore, mostly because the buildup of a mock robbery plays out excruciatingly long. By the time Graysmith tries to bypass police protocols, the murders are distant memories, and the hunt for the killer has become more of a need for self-satisfaction than justice for the victims.

The obstacles are many. Not only does the killer change weapons and MOs, but the press and the police also struggle within their ranks and against each other. Early on, the Chronicle decides on its own where and when to run the Zodiac's message without any consultation with the police as to what ramifications the release or withholding of it may have. Later when the killer threatens to attack children on a school bus, the information is initially withheld, but when it is released, the news media is flooded with the report. The Zodiac plays into the media hype by requesting counseling from the attorney Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) on live television. Avery becomes a symbol of potentially reckless reporting when he divulges that certain murders prior to the Vallejo killing are the act of the Zodiac, even though the police are convinced otherwise. What that report does in a way show is the added difficulty of an investigation that covers multiple precincts when those in charge refuse or are unable to exchange information. There's lots of head-butting between the police forces of each district. Suspects and witnesses are questioned by the San Francisco police only to discover that they have already been questioned by one of the outlying precincts.

The toll the mishmash and blocking of information takes on those involved is high. Avery descends into alcoholism and becomes a recluse. Graysmith faces problems with his wife Melanie (Chloë Sevigny), whom he meets on a blind date when the Zodiac is heavy on his mind and who leaves him when he starts a personal quest to solve the case. "Do whatever you have to, but finish this," she tells him in their apartment, stacked to the brim with files and boxes, and the relationship is handled particularly well in the way the tension mounts just under the surface. The detectives are devoted, but Armstrong escapes before it overwhelms him, leaving Toschi as the lone detective on a case that no one has the time or manpower to cover. Suspects seem promising, only to have fingerprint and handwriting analyses rule them out (Fincher casts three different actors to play the Zodiac, throwing off our own perception). Eventually, Graysmith knows he won't solve the crime, but he just wants to see him—recognize him. It's a small consolation, one that neither achieves due process or justice. When he does achieve it, the look means everything, and it means nothing.

Fincher filmed on digital, and the transfer gives the film an aged, faded look that complements Harris Savides' semi-noir cinematography. The look itself seems of the bygone era of Zodiac, but the implications of the Zodiac murders—how the news media handles police matters, how the police operate in the media age, and how the public's own drive for information or lack of caring affects the justice process—still hold bearing today.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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Buy the DVD

Buy the Director's Cut DVD

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Buy the Score

Buy the Book (Zodiac)

Buy the Book (Zodiac Unmasked)

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