(Movie review by John C. Ford) David Fincher wants you to feel exhausted. He wants to show you how the interminable search for the Zodiac, a real-life California serial killer, chewed up the lives of three men who pursued him for more than a decade. Unfortunately, David Fincher is extremely good at his job. Clocking in at more than two and a half hours, his tale of the wearying, grinding — and still unsolved — case achieves its aim perhaps too well. In the end, viewers may be less dazzled by the directorial skill of Fincher (“Seven”) than they are wrung out by the tale of the film’s endless investigation. This effect is unfortunate, considering the cinematic rewards along “Zodiac’s” frustrating path.
“Zodiac” begins with a murder scene that plays like a high art Stephen King movie. On the night of July 4, 1969, two young lovers park at a secluded overlook. They are approached from behind by a muscle car, headlights off, blasting “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” The ominous car departs for the highway, but the pulsating song never quite dies — and then it grows louder again as the car returns and the driver gets out with a gun. This opening sequence contains more tension, atmosphere, and stunning visual touches than twenty schlock thrillers combined.
But don’t mistake “Zodiac” for a thriller, or at least an ordinary one. Forgoing high-wire set pieces, the movie details the plodding investigation of the Zodiac killer conducted at both the San Francisco Chronicle and the city’s police department. The newspaper gets involved when the publicity-seeking Zodiac sends its editors a teasing note, accompanied by a cipher with clues to murders he has committed. Inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) follow up and find their investigation stuck in bureaucratic quicksand, the result of the Zodiac having committed murders in three different police jurisdictions.
The movie pays loving attention to such mundane hiccups — the fact that a small California police station did not have a “telefax” machine, the vagaries of handwriting analysis, and a problematic fingerprint. There is a reason for this: director Fincher has boasted, to the USA Today among other publications, that “Zodiac” attempts to re-create the case as closely to its true facts as possible. “We dug into this case like reporters would,” Fincher has said. Unfortunately true life is messier, less sensical, and often less entertaining than fiction.
The achievement of “Zodiac”, even greater than its reportage, is the fact that it remains compelling while hewing to actual events. A period piece of sorts, “Zodiac” evokes life in the 1960s and 70s with an almost tactile power. And through the muddled investigation that extends across the years, as the Zodiac sends more notes and notches up more bodies, the film plucks out clean narrative threads to pull the audience along.
Unfortunately “Zodiac’s” fetish for investigatory details leaves little room for characterization. Edwards and the great Mark Ruffalo (“You Can Count on Me”) have little to do but push the plot along like assembly line workers. The most interesting aspect of Ruffalo’s character is his love of Animal Crackers, which, ironically, is exactly the kind of cheap shorthand detail you would expect to find in a B-grade cop movie. As for Edwards’s character, he slips out of the story halfway, unmissed. The story from the Chronicle side has more life, thanks in part to Robert Downey Jr., who is electrifying in the role of a reporter slipping into alcoholism. Downey’s reporter receives unsolicited assistance in tracking the Zodiac from the film’s best-drawn character, Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Goldsmith (Jake Gyllenhaal).
With his savvy choices in roles, Gyllenhaal (“Brokeback Mountain”) has succeeded in distinguishing himself from look-alike boy actors such as Toby Maguire. In “Zodiac”, Gyllenhaal gives a nicely understated performance as an innocent dreamer preoccupied by puzzles and, eventually, the Zodiac case. He emerges as the main character relatively late in the film, and it is a welcome development. After the police have deserted the cold case, Gyllenhaal’s Goldsmith becomes obsessed with it, and it wreaks havoc on his family life. His wife (Chloe Sevigny, doing much with little) asks him a question that gets to the heart of “Zodiac”: why is he so fixated on the case when there are so many other worthy claims on his attention? In response, Goldsmith says simply that he needs to know, as if his obsession is self-justifying.
The Zodiac could well be considered an origin story for our popular serial-killer entertainments, complete with a flamboyant murderer who gives himself an exotic name and taunts the investigators hounding him. The elements of it contain more tropes than the hack screenplay Donald Kaufman writes in “Adaptation” (about a serial killer called the “Deconstructionist,” a literary murderer who chops his victims into pieces), which is meant to be a parody of the form. Beginning with the Zodiac, serial killer stories have remained wildly popular, gripping our culture the way the Zodiac obsessed Goldsmith.
There is, of course, no reason for this — or none to feel good about. Just as there is no good answer to the question posed by Goldsmith’s wife. It is tempting to read the inclusion of that question in the movie as a reflection of the filmmaker’s collective guilt for feeding the beast with “Zodiac.” One is left to wonder, also, about the filmmaker’s own obsession with telling the “true story.” All of that research…to what end? This question was raised by films about September 11th, with “United 93” and “World Trade Center”, and here again on a smaller scale. Certainly the victims deserve respect, but would it not be more respectful to leave the matter alone than project their suffering, however faithfully re-created, to an audience munching popcorn?
Like it or not, “Zodiac’s” ticket buyers will come for the lurid crimes, not the fact checking. And in the end, “Zodiac”, wondrous filmmaking though it is, provides little reason for its dogged accuracy beyond, perhaps, the distraction it provides from making profits on such a horrific, true story.
David Fincher (director) / James Vanderbilt (screenplay), Robert Graysmith (book)
CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal … Robert Graysmith
Mark Ruffalo … Inspector David Toschi
Anthony Edwards … Inspector William Armstrong
Robert Downey Jr. … Paul Avery
Brian Cox … Melvin Belli
John Carroll Lynch … Arthur Leigh Allen