David Fincher's Zodiac is a true crime film based on a book by Robert Graysmith. The fact that it's a true story – and remarkably faithful to its source material – does not prevent it from being a film that draws us in and gets us caught up in it…
If you see Zodiac expecting some stylistic odd masterpiece [like director David Fincher's Se7en, or Fight Club], you may be disappointed. The true crime thriller takes a very mainstream approach to detailing the search for the Zodiac killer of the 70s. It's a carefully constructed film that shows how far police investigation has come in a mere thirty years – and it's a sneaky, sly film that grabs our attention with its initial scene [a roadside shooting that is swift, brutal and bloody] then draws us into one of the longest and most frustrating criminal investigations in modern history.
Zodiac raises a lot of questions – like whether the Zodiac killer was responsible for all the murders he claimed to have committed, or if he appropriated several because of some warped sense of humor and style. It follows the police detectives assigned to the case – Dave Toschi [Mark Ruffalo] and William Armstrong [Anthony Edwards] – as well as the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who covered the case, Paul Avery [Robert Downey Jr.].
The main focal point of the film is Robert Graysmith [Jake Gyllenhaal], an editorial cartoonist for the Chronicle – and a puzzle-solving hobbyist who cracks all of the Zodiac's ciphers. Graysmith becomes obsessed with Zodiac and keeps up his personal investigation long after the police of several jurisdictions have given up.
Where Fincher is known for being a director who mixes a certain stylistic flamboyance with resolute storytelling skills, he stays pretty much in storyteller mode here. The flourishes that characterized his previous films are absent – replaced with two main plot arcs [Toschi's investigation and Graysmith's] that are followed with an almost CSI straightforwardness. He relies on the detailed script, the nuanced performances of his huge cast, and the fact that this is a true story to pique the audience's interest and draw us into his labyrinthine tale.
Zodiac has a truly amazing cast. Besides the named leads, it includes: Chloe Sevigny, Brian Cox, John Terry, Candy Clark, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue and Philip Baker Hall [who maintains his record for appearing in only really good films]. One of the best cameos involves Charles Fleischer as a creepy film buff who gives Graysmith more than a bit of turn…
Zodiac clocks in at two hours and forty minutes, but feels like ninety. When I came out of the theater, I couldn't believe how late it was. Now that is the sign of a great movie!