The highly anticipated new film from director David Fincher ("Seven", "Panic Room", "Fight Club"), "Zodiac" is a faithful recreation of the hunt for the elusive Zodiac killer in San Francisco during the early 70s. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., along with a wealth of well-known actors in small, supporting roles, "Zodiac" is a very good yet imperfect film suffering from two problems. More on that later.
July 4, 1969. Vallejo, California. A teenage boy, impatient with his girlfriend when she is late to pick him up, doesn't realize she has a plan and they soon end up at a make-out point. Before they are able to get very far, a car speeds up behind them and the driver gets out and shoots them. Then an ominous letter arrives at the San Francisco Chronicle. The writer claims to be the killer and includes a cipher demanding the paper print it on the front page, he wants a different part of the same cipher printed in the San Francisco Examiner and a locaL Vallejo paper. If they don't, the killing spree will continue. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a political cartoonist at the Chronicle, gets a look at the cipher and tries to solve it. A couple of days later, two retired school teachers solve the cipher and turn it into the paper. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a reporter at the Chronicle, is in the room when the letter is read, so he gets the story and starts to verify the information revealed. Later, a cabbie picks up a fare in downtown San Francisco. Stopping on a residential street, the passenger shoots the cabbie and takes part of his bloody shirt. Detective Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, Detective Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), investigate and soon everyone realizes the killer of both of these people is one and the same. In a future letter, the killer identifies himself as Zodiac and all of the parties begin a long investigation taking them to many dead ends, through many career and life changes, and into an obsession with finding the true identity of this elusive killer.
From the opening frames of "Zodiac", we realize we are in the hands of a filmmaker who has gone to great pains to recreate a time and an era, to add authenticity to the story. A wide shot of San Francisco bay, complete with fireworks, leads to a traveling shot down a residential street in Vallejo. We see various people playing with fireworks in front of their homes. We see the obligatory families with the large fireworks, overdoing it, trying to make everyone jealous. Wait, what was that? Two mothers sharing a smoke outside of a garage? Yes, that's exactly what it was. Not every director would even bother to show this type of detail, but because Fincher does, we realize he is going to take us for a ride, showing us as much detail, relevant or not, good or bad, as he can. He wants to make a definitive portrait of the hunt for this killer, so he will provide us with a lot of detail; considering the length of the investigation, perhaps too much detail. This is why the film clocks in at over two and a half hours; there is a lot of story to tell and Fincher isn't willing to take any shortcuts.
The details are presented in a clear and concise fashion. Each scene begins with a date and time stamp, helping us orient the lengthy, ongoing investigation. Some scenes are very brief, others present information leading Graysmith or Toschi in a wrong direction. This is all part of the investigation and therefore, part of the story of the hunt for the Zodiac.
"Zodiac" is more of a police procedural than I was expecting. It does this well, as mentioned, giving us a clear picture of the investigation, warts and all, showing us many of the leads the detectives or Graysmith follow. But the film is lacking in suspense. It isn't a requirement that a film of this nature have suspense, but given Fincher's last few films, and the subject matter, I kind of expected it. The film is very good, but a little suspense sprinkled throughout would help the film move at a faster pace and seem less long than it actually is. At two hours and forty minutes, you feel every minute of it when you get up and leave the theater. There are a couple of moments when Fincher seems to say "oh, screw it" and tries to inject some suspense, but these attempts are half hearted and do little more than help to establish another fact or make the film just a bit longer.
The performances are universally good, but they are pretty low key, with Gyllenhaal exuding the most energy and Downey Jr. adding little interesting touches to his portrayal of the reporter who chronicles the story of the killer for the San Francisco newspaper.
As soon as Graysmith gets a look at the first cipher, he is hooked. A political cartoonist for the newspaper, he admits that he enjoys puzzles. A number of other people, the FBI, Naval Intelligence, try to solve the puzzle, but a pair of retired professors successfully decodes the message. When Graysmith looks at their solution, the last line is left blank and he realizes they were unable to figure it out. As they receive more coded messages, he becomes more and more obsessed with discovering the identity of the killer, as though Zodiac's identity is a puzzle of its own.
Throughout "Zodiac", Gyllenhaal seems slightly frantic. During a blind date with Melanie (Chloe Sevigny), he is preoccupied and more concerned with the whereabouts of Paul Avery (Downey, Jr.). Inexplicably, they end up living together and have children before his obsession takes over completely. Finally, he decides to write a book, but as the investigation goes on for a long time, the book takes a long time. Graysmith wants to make sure he has all of the information.
Mark Ruffalo is fairly low key as Detective Toschi. So often, we see film detectives who blow up at the slightest provocation, presumably the filmmaker's way of making the detective seem believable, when in fact it simply makes them seem like a cartoon. Fincher keeps things very neutral; arguments between Toschi and Armstrong are more of a disagreement, when they interrogate suspects, they raise their eyebrows when something doesn't fit. There is no good cop/ bad cop here. During the course of the film, Graysmith and Toschi attend the premiere of "Dirty Harry" and his hunt for the 'Scorpio Killer'. This is Fincher's way of indicating to us how 'real' he is trying to make this experience. As they leave the theater, someone remarks the suspect got shot in the back. At the time, they were not close to uncovering the identity of the killer, so the story is clearly fictionalized. Also, Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan couldn't be further from Mark Ruffalo's Toschi, a detective clearly more realistic than Eastwood's famous, iconic character.
Ruffalo's Toschi is also obsessed with finding the killer, but he seems more cognoscente of how the system works. He knows he has to work other cases, and won't be able to keep the case open forever. Therefore, he occasionally loses hope only to have Graysmith uncover a new lead and pull him back into the mix again, getting his hopes up again.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Paul Avery, the Chronicle reporter who becomes the lead reporter on the case. Downey brings a few moments of levity to the film, portraying Avery as a cross between a free wheeling reporter in the late 60s, experimenting with everything San Francisco has to offer, and Noel Coward. Avery isn't beyond saying what he is thinking, but he quickly covers up any faux pas with an acerbic remark. At one point, he and Graysmith are talking over drinks in a seedy bar. After Avery takes a hit of cocaine, he notices Graysmith's blue drink, complete with umbrella and states "That drink can longer be ignored". Graysmith offers a sip and the dubious Avery tries it. Cut to a table with twelve empty glasses, the remains of the watery blue drink in each.
Avery's cavalier attitude gets him into more than one dangerous situation and he seems less intent on trying to figure out ho the killer is than with keeping his job, in an effort to maintain his lifestyle. Graysmith visits the reporter late in the story, after he no longer works for the Chronicle, to find him living in a seedy house boat, unwilling to get too worked up about the latest lead.
The film features a wealth of well-known actors taking on smaller roles. Anthony Edwards plays Toschi's partner, Detective Armstrong. He is basically a sounding board for Toschi, and they share the same temperament. John Carroll Lynch (best known as Drew Carey's brother on "The Drew Carey Show") plays Arthur Leigh Allen, one of the suspects. In his few scenes, he quickly establishes his creepiness and makes us realize he could possibly be carrying out these murders. Brian Cox plays Melvin Belli, the San Francisco attorney who helped to set the stage for people like Johnnie Cochran and other superstar lawyers. Charles Fleischer (the voice of "Roger Rabbit") makes a quick appearance as a revival movie theater owner who may hold the key to the mystery. Dermot Mulroney plays Toschi's boss, the head of the Detective squad. Elias Koteas, James Le Gros, Clea Duvall and many others make quick appearances.
"Zodiac" is a very well made film, presenting the most important details of the lengthy hunt for this elusive killer. I like the film's attempts to show us the wrong turns the investigation takes, showing us the red herrings. I simply wish the performances held a little more fire, a little more passion. And I wish the film had a little more suspense, a little more excitement. But director David Fincher has created a thorough, well-made procedural to present his theories about the identity of the killer.