Just the facts: two homicide detectives, a crime eporter and a political cartoonist spend decades knocking themselves out to atch a serial killer who never (officially) gets caught. Careers, arriages, even sanity fall victim to obsession. That’s Zodiac, a eticulous, mind-bending, nonstop mesmerizer of a movie that needed another ie-hard fanatic to make it pop onscreen.
And who better for the job than he brilliant, driven David Fincher, a director known to put his actors hrough more than 100 takes to get the nuances he wants. He raised the ar on kinky freaks in Se7en, plumbed the roots of trickery in The Game, tracked delusion to its core in Fight Club and used a prowling camera o dig out psychological truth in Panic Room. Zodiac, the name of the sycho who ted terrorizing the San Francisco Bay Area in 1968 and ormented the press with coded messages, is right up the director’s dark lley. Fincher was seven and living in the kill zone when his dad told im that the Zodiac had threatened to shoot kids like him as they tepped off their school bus.
It’s a wonder Fincher wasn’t traumatized by his nut job, who inspired the fictional killer Scorpio in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Primal fear is hard to explain away, but the characters n Fincher’s film try to do just that by cutting a monster down to uman size. At the head of the list is cartoonist Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal with just the right blend of smarts and geek-boy ixation. Graysmith, a shy newbie at The San Francisco Chronicle, is ripped by the first letter, which begins, “This is the Zodiac speaking.” or more details, he hounds the paper’s ace crime reporter, Paul Avery the reliably amazing Robert Downey Jr.), who in turn hounds the SFPD’s otshot homicide inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, illiam Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). The contentious bond among these en will stretch into years, even when Armstrong drops out and no arrests re made. It’s Graysmith who will later write the two books, Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, that serve as the film’s source material, bolstered by resh investigations launched by Fincher and screenwriter James anderbilt.
That’s a lot of dogs to be gnawing on one bone. But make no istake, you will be hooked and creeped out big time. Fincher stages the irst murder with blood-chilling intensity. A hooded killer walks up to a ar parked on a lovers’ lane and opens fire on a teen couple (he urvives, she doesn’t). It could be the stuff of a typical CSI episode — iolent porn sandwiched between commercials. But Fincher transcends xploitation. We feel the swiftness of the crime, the shock of what follows nd the reeling sense of life snuffed out in seconds.
Later, in one of he most realistic and wrenching depictions of murder in broad daylight, he Zodiac stalks a couple picnicking by a lake in Napa. Their serenity s interrupted when the Zodiac is suddenly on them with a knife, tabbing them repeatedly. Fincher lingers on the aftermath, of being left, rying for help, to bleed to death. These sequences, including the xecution of a cab driver on a suburban street, are paralyzing in their rutal immediacy. They need to be. It’s the human toll taken by the Zodiac, ho sparked copycat crimes across the country, that drives the rotagonists to keep hammering at this cold case even when the killings stop nd media interest wanes.
Fincher never sensationalizes these images. For he first time in his career, he’s dealing with real people and ranting them a respect denied by tabloids and Zodiac’s attempts to hype imself into a media headline. He achieves a near-documentary realism nhanced by high-definition camerawork from the gifted Harris Savides Elephant, Gerry) that brings a gritty urgency to everything from the offices f cops and reporters to the streets where the crimes were actually ommitted. The film calls to mind two 1970s classics, Francis Coppola’s The Conversation and Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men, in its vocation of time and place, with added resonance from the striking music by avid Shire, who scored both of those films. Fincher’s shrewd use of ongs to bridge time finds a nerve-jangling menace in Donovan’s “Hurdy urdy Man” with its intimations of “unenlightened shadows cast.”
Still, t’s the people in those shadows who draw you in. Gyllenhaal pulls us nexorably into a mind-set that ultimately wrecks Graysmith’s marriage to elanie (Chloe Sevigny). And Ruffalo is outstanding at showing us a attered Toschi — once enough of a supercop to be the model for Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Michael Douglas on TV’s The Streets of San rancisco — demoted out of homicide but still willing to assist Graysmith on is quest. The most dramatic decline is experienced by Avery, whose ddiction to the case is trumped by his self-destructive jones for booze nd cocaine. Downey gives a blazing performance that runs the gamut from umor to heartbreak. All the actors excel. Brian Cox is sharply funny s celeb lawyer Melvin Belli, and John Carroll Lynch will haunt your ightmares as Arthur Leigh Allen, the suspect the cops dismiss and raysmith comes to focus on.
Put your whodunit expectations away when you isit Zodiac. It’s the process that pins you to your seat. A film this ainstaking and tenacious won’t appeal to those in it strictly for the lood lust. Fincher is a powerhouse filmmaker, but he doesn’t pander. He hakes you up in ways you don’t see coming. Thanks to him, the still-new ovie year, littered with barf-inducing Hollywood formula (hello, Norbit), has busted out with something unique and unmissable.