Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox. Rated R.
EIt was perhaps only a matter of time before David Fincher
moved on from sensationalist fantasy like Se7en
and Fight Club
true-crime thrillers like Zodiac
, the new film studiously based on a pair of
bestsellers by controversial author Robert Graysmith. In truth, Zodiac
much about Graysmith, a self-proclaimed expert on the series of unsolved
murders that rocked Northern California during the 1960s and early ’70s, as
about the killings themselves. In both respects, it is compelling
entertainment, recreating the crimes with chilling efficiency and tracing one
man’s obsessive search for answers.
As Graysmith, a former Chronicle cartoonist who eventually
parlayed his unhealthy fascination with the case into a cottage industry, Jake
Gyllenhaal is sufficiently wide-eyed, pouring himself into a fanatical manhunt
for the killer who taunted police and reporters like Paul Avery (Robert Downey
Jr.) with his infamous letters. Downey’s Avery is well-lubricated and gleefully
self-serving, injecting himself into the case with a thrill-seeker’s abandon.
That doesn’t sit well with Homicide Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) – the
real-life inspiration for both Dirty Harry and Steve McQueen’s character in Bullitt – but it does
open the door for Graysmith, Avery’s overeager sidekick,
to take a crack at those confounded letters.
The letters, of course, go a long way toward explaining
the mythology that has grown around the Zodiac murders over the years. The
Zodiac was hardly the most prolific of serial killers, but like John Doe from Se7en, there was a gruesome theatricality
to his methods. He was a master of
self-promotion, with his elaborately staged crime scenes, brazen confessions
and promises of carnage to come, and Fincher uses the details to great effect
in an exhaustively researched epic that is endlessly intriguing without relying
All of which might come as a surprise to devotees of Se7en and Fight Club, accustomed as
they are to Fincher’s own
fondness for theatrics. Here, he effectively recreates the paranoia that
gripped San Francisco in the time of the Zodiac, but lets the facts of the case
speak for themselves and gives the material plenty of room to breathe. His
restraint pays off. Zodiac is as lucidly told as James Vanderbilt’s script,
faithfully adapted in a way that makes sense of Graysmith’s mysterious
characters and labyrinthine subplots and twists. It feels true-to-life, and
with that authenticity comes a power that no melodramatics could have provided.
In that sense, Zodiac represents Fincher’s most
accomplished work to date – no small praise, considering his deserved
reputation as an heir-apparent to Hitchcock. At more than two-and-a-half hours,
the film leaves little to the imagination, dutifully exploring every lead while
making a convincing (but largely circumstantial) case against Graysmith’s
choice as the Zodiac. It is riveting from the start, a compelling
stranger-than-fiction story that feels satisfyingly resolved despite the lack
of a definitive ending.