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Zodiac (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 02 March 2007
“Zodiac” is a deeply involving, almost hypnotic depiction of the investigation of the “Zodiac” killings in the San Francisco area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s a long movie, but never boring; its grip on the viewer is firm. Director David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Panic Room”) is confident in his complete control of the filmmaking elements. The script by James Vanderbilt is the best Fincher’s had to work with so far, rich in both character and factual details, all presented clearly and thoroughly. The model here isn’t murder thrillers but “All the President’s Men,” and this is not a “whodunit,” since the identity of the Zodiac killer has never been firmly established.

It’s based not just on a pair of books by Robert Graysmith, who’s also a character in the film, but on original research done by Fincher, Vanderbilt and others involved in the film. The Zodiac Killings remain unsolved, but the filmmakers have taken a bold step in identifying the suspect their research and that of Graysmith singled out. The movie doesn’t end with a climax, but a kind of fading away, with on-screen notes filling us in on the later lives of those involved, but without any assertion that this suspect must have been Zodiac. So there’s nothing about revealing this person’s name that would constitute a spoiler—but everyone defines “spoiler” for themselves.

Shot with the Thomson Viper FilmStream camera throughout, the film is realistic and convincing, though not documentary-like in style. The center of each sequence, however, is the characters and the incidents, not how things look. However, it’s also true that cinematographer Harris Savides and production designer Donald Graham Burt have, with the help of undetectable computer graphics, convincingly and attractively recreated the look of the 1960s and early 1970s without resorting to any obvious elements (no masses of hippies, for example). It’s sober and realistic.

The movie opens as two young people—the somewhat older woman married, the male just a teenager—park in a remote area one night. A man walks up to them and shoots them both; the woman is killed, the young man left handicapped and haunted.

A note is delivered to the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle; editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) happens to be in the staff room when the letter arrives. It claims credit for the murders and insists the newspaper run the enclosed cipher on its front page, or more will be killed. Also present is talented, wry crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), who sees an opportunity. Similar notes were delivered to two other Bay Area newspapers; all print the cipher.

A young college instructor and his wife relax by a sunny lake when they’re found by the killer. This time, he’s wearing a black hood and tunic with the circle-in-crosshairs symbol that adorned the letters. He ties up his frightened, cooperative targets and stabs them. (Again, the woman died, the man ultimately survived.) That this brutal attack takes place on a lovely day by a beautiful lake only emphasizes the horror.
There’s another letter from the killer, who dubs himself “Zodiac,” and another killing, this time of a cabbie right in San Francisco itself.

The movie at first centers on San Francisco police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), assigned to the case after the killing of the cabbie. They kind of carom off the eager but cynical Avery as they continue their nearly clue-less investigation. The second part of the movie deals more closely with Graysmith, who becomes more and more involved in the case, finally alienating his second wife (Chloë Sevigny).

The movie carefully guides us through time and place, citing each change on screen. Each major element in the case is scrutinized, from solving the cipher (done by a civilian husband and wife team who liked the challenge), to small, telling clues in Zodiac’s notes. He refers to mankind as a “dangerous game,” which leads investigators to suspect Zodiac was a fan of the old movie “The Most Dangerous Game” and/or the Richard Connell short story it was based on. (In one of the movie’s few factual stumbles, the short story is referred to as a novel.)

The Zodiac case was complicated from the beginning; the murders occurred in different jurisdictions, involving several police departments. In those pre-computer days, it wasn’t easy to exchange information, and there were a lot of egos on the line as well. Cops tend to be macho (I hope that doesn’t come as a shock), and tend to get their backs up when they think someone else is treading on their territory. For all too many of them, it mattered less that there was a murderer out there than scoring political points in their own area. “Zodiac” delineates these conflicts well, with a sense of humor and detachment—but the film, like Graysmith, Avery and Toschi, remains focused on the idea of uncovering Zodiac.

Avery, played with great sensitivity and wit by Downey, gradually crumbles over the years as he becomes an alcoholic, then gets hooked on drugs. He slowly disappears from the story, but his influence, for good and bad, is felt throughout.

Toschi was a true police hero, and the model not only for Steve McQueen’s title role in “Bullit,” but also for “Dirty” Harry Callahan in Clint Eastwood’s successful series. In fact, the first in the series was largely based on the Zodiac case, with a killer who calls himself Scorpio, and who—as Zodiac threatened to do—targets a schoolbus full of kids. (There’s even a scene in which Graysmith meets Toschi for the first time, right after a screening of “Dirty Harry.”) Ruffalo, with rumpled hair and gun in shoulder holster (one of his trademarks), is made haggard by the case, and even today returns to the site of the murder of the cabbie every year on the date of the death. (We see him do this over several years.) Ruffalo, as always, is convincing, even though he’s saddled with several somewhat odd (but probably real) character traits such as a fondness for animal crackers and bow ties.

Ultimately, the central character is Robert Graysmith, who must have a very comfortable view of himself. Gyllenhaal plays him first as a very nice guy (literally a Boy Scout) who’s more nerdy than anything else, a bit bashful around Avery (whom he amuses), nervous on meeting Toschi. And he is, of course, an obsessive, or he wouldn’t have written his two books on the Zodiac killer. (His book about the murder of Bob Crane was filmed as “Auto Focus.”) Gyllenhaal makes him funny and likeable in a sort of goofball manner; he’s almost winsome.

While the movie is honest and interesting in its treatment of the central figures, the focus is much more on what they’re doing than who they are. The details are among the elements that make this movie work so well. Eventually, the police—the San Francisco detectives and Sgt. Mulnaux (Elias Koteas) from an outlying region—focus in on a particular suspect (played by John Carroll Lynch), who denies being Zodiac, though some clues suggest he is; even his sister-in-law claims he’s the killer. (He lives in a mobile home full of squirrels, alive and dead, one of the fascinating, if weird, details the movie delights in.)

Famous local attorney Melvin Belli (a convincing, amusing Brian Cox) is brought in by Zodiac himself, but his involvement at first doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. But a small detail—another one of those—years later leads Graysmith right to that same suspect once more, though by a new route.

If the movie has any significant failings, it’s that it doesn’t really depict the impact the Zodiac killings had on the people of the Bay Area. There’s a brief sequence of the police dealing with worthless leads (including a black woman who claims to be Zodiac), and occasional TV broadcasts (some of which seem to be the real thing), but that people lived in, if not terror, at least a steady state of apprehension just isn’t part of the fabric of this movie.

Director Fincher doesn’t call attention to himself, but his very firm hand is tangible in every scene. The editing is particularly fluid; the scenes flow seamlessly into one another, carrying us along steadily. Camera angles are well-integrated without any obvious matching. The score by David Shire is minimal, sometimes just a series of low, rising rumbles; period music is often heard on the track, with Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” linking the opening and closing. This is an intelligent, thoughtful and engrossing movie for adults; it’s not an action movie, it deals sparingly with suspense and after the first two killings, the murders take place off screen.

By next year’s Oscars, “Zodiac” is likely still to be one of the most important and prominent films of 2007. It’s not showy and is never obvious in what it’s trying to do. It was thoroughly researched (unusual these days), carefully written, very well acted, and solidly establishes David Fincher as the major director his fans have always claimed him to be.

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