Jake Gyllenhaal - Robert Graysmith
Mark Ruffalo - David Toschi
Anthony Edwards - William Armstrong
Robert Downey Jr. - Paul Avery
Brian Cox - Melvin Belli
John Carroll Lynch - Arthur Leigh Allen
Year - 2007
Score - 4 Howls Outta 4
When it comes to creating intense thrillers, David Fincher is probably the guy you want directing your film. From directing modern classics [SE7EN and FIGHT CLUB] to underrated films [THE GAME and PANIC ROOM], David Fincher has definitely left his mark on the world of cinema. So when I heard he was gonna direct ZODIAC, a film based on the true story about a San Francisco serial killer in the 1960s and '70s who was never caught, earlier in the year, I was very excited. He did a great job with this kind of story in SE7EN, so why wouldn't he do a great job for ZODIAC? I watched it in the theater when it was released months ago and just watched it again recently. And I gotta say that Fincher continues his streak of directing great films, creating one of the best films that has been released this year thus far.
In 1969 San Francisco Bay, a young couple are shot multiple times by an unknown assailant, leaving the young man wounded but killing the young lady. The attack becomes front page news for the San Francisco Chronicle, creating an obsession for a young cartoonist named Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). He starts following the story with huge interest after the killer begins sending strange notes written in code that had to be deciphered [if not, the killer promised to kill again - fortunately a retired couple figures out the code]. A writer for the Chronicle, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), is assigned to cover the case of the man who calls himself The Zodiac. Robert begins bugging Paul about the case, figuring out the Zodiac's code on his own and becoming an unwilling ally for Paul.
After a span of years of more murders and strange notes, the police are no closer to solving the case, even though they have a prime suspect based on circumstantial evidence. Due to the lack of progress, Robert decides to write a book on The Zodiac and solve the case on his own. This obsession begins to destroy his marriage, hurt his job, and annoy the police [especially Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who's the lead investigator of the case and doesn't appreciate a cartoonist trying to help him]. When Robert gets closer to solving the case, it's too late, as no one wants to hear from him - keeping the case unsolved to this very day.
At 2 hours and 30 minutes, ZODIAC is a very long look of the story of the Zodiac killings in San Francisco and how it affected the people who were affected by the case the most. This is not a film where you watch some lunatic kill a decent amount of people to create gore and violence like some slasher flick. We hardly even see the Zodiac, even though he drives the film due to the other characters in the film trying to figure out his identity. David Fincher directs this film brilliantly, as his usual frantic approach to filmmaking takes a back seat to subtlety [except for that scene where the Zodiac's letter are interposed with real time, creating a cool visual sequence], creating a slow look of the effect the Zodiac killer made to these character. Unlike the exciting SE7EN, ZODIAC is more of a mystery than a thriller. We see events through many points of views, giving us massive amount of information about the Zodiac from different perspectives, yet still creating a coherent and believable story and film.
What I like about all of Fincher's films is how well he uses atmosphere, settings, and tone to create tension and an uncomfortable and almost-creepy mood. Fincher captures the San Francisco backdrop of the 1960s and 1970s extremely well, giving us long exterior shots and birds-eye-view shots of places and people as if he's making us feel like voyeurs to this story of the Zodiac. The use of chiaroscuro and mise-en-scene are wonderfully done, creating a dark film that provides us the fact that this film is not gonna be pretty or happy. The film is especially gritty and the murders aren't overdone and look so real that it's kinda shocking to watch them as they happen. Fincher doesn't do a lot of neat camera tricks to gain our attention. He shows us exactly what he wants us to see, while providing us clues that we, as viewers, need to take time and find. The use of low-key lighting and framing shots bring us into the film, making us sympathize with these characters and make us become obsessed in learning who the Zodiac is as much as these characters. The music for the film is also excellent, as the songs definitely fit the eras the film is set in, creating a realism that most films like these have trouble creating.
While not a big issue, the pacing of the film was sort of weird. The film didn't really flow perfectly and you could tell where the three acts of the film started and ended. The first act is probably the most action-filled act, where we see the Zodiac do his thing [both kill and send letters], creating a cat-and-mouse feel between the Zodiac, the cops, and the people working for the San Francisco Chronicle. With threats of murdering children and sending notes that obviously hold clues to his identity and whereabouts, the Zodiac becomes quite the cunning villain during the first 80 minutes of the film. And when the search and investigation goes nowhere, we're just as frustrated as the protagonists in the film, creating a tense feeling as we want this killer to be caught before he hurts more people.
The second act is probably the most character/dialogue driven of the film, as we see how the Zodiac case is taking its toll on these characters. Police are retiring, Robert is growing more and more obsessed, and we watch Paul Avery deteriorate right in front of our eyes. The police have a suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, yet don't have enough evidence to put him away [his handwriting and prints don't seem to match those of the Zodiac, although he's the closest link to the murderer]. And the last act [45 minutes or so] kinda takes the focus away from the Zodiac and puts it on Robert's quest to figure out the Zodiac's identity. It's a great last act [reminded me of THE GAME, actually], but it's kinda slow and creates a level of impatience due to the more exciting first act. But for a long film like this, it's quite impressive how Fincher kept my interest for the duration of it. It grips you from beginning to end, although stronger pacing couldn't have hurt.
The acting was exceptional in this film. Jake Gyllenhaal continues to pick good roles for himself. As Robert Graysmith, he carries most of the second act and all of the last act, perfectly protraying a man who's obsession with the Zodiac case is tearing up his family and destroying his life. He brings a puppy-eyed innocence to the character with a hint of paranoia [especially towards the end] as he comes closer to figuring out who the Zodiac killer is. He's not the best actor in the film and this isn't a star-making performance, but if Gyllenhaal continues to do roles like this one, he'll shed that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN image soon enough.
Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are great as police detectives and partners during the whole Zodiac madness. It's nice to see Edwards away from ER and protraying a role he was made for. He's very coolheaded and actually quite funny in some scenes. I had always wondered what happened to Edwards after leaving the previously mentioned medical drama, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him do a great job in a role like this. I would definitely like to see more of him on film. And Ruffalo is pretty much a great actor in any film he does [hell, he's probably the only reason to watch IN THE CUT]. He grows obsessed with capturing the Zodiac as well, becoming frustrated when every lead brings him back to square one. Unlike Graysmith, Ruffalo's David Toschi sort of accepts the fact that he may never catch the Zodiac until Graysmith shows him evidence as to the killer's identity. Ruffalo plays great no-bullshit type of characters, and this one is no different. Plus his love for animal crackers got a chuckle out of me. I don't blame the guy. I love those damn things myself.
The best actor in the film was definitely Robert Downey Jr. as writer Paul Avery. The guy was kind of an arrogant prick, but you couldn't help but feel for the guy. While Avery was always a drunk and junkie, it just got worse as the Zodiac case wore on until the man finally lost his job and reputation. Downey Jr. probably took the role because he could relate to it, as he's had his own issues with substance abuse that could have ruined his career for good. But he's too great of an actor for that to happen and picks roles that lets him confront these issues and let's him steal the film from his co-stars. I honestly believe he deserved an Academy Award nomination for this role in the Supporting Actor category. This film is really that good.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE WATCHING THIS FILM
1) In 1969 Vallejo, California, there's a fast food joint named Mr. Ed's. I don't think I'd want to eat there. Who knows what kind of beef they serve. Neigh...
2) If a weird car has been following you for days and gives you a chance to drive away and escape, I'd take it. You might live to see another day. It's probably worth a shot...or ten.
3) The Zodiac dresses in black and has never been caught. The man's obviously a ninja.
4) The Zodiac was inspired by one of his favorite films to kill people. If you ever see me wearing a white mask, mechanic's jumpsuit, and holding a butcher knife while breathing heavy on Halloween - I'd suggest you run and hide until November 1st.
5) Paul Avery believed that the Zodiac killer did what he did because he's a latent homosexual. I'd watch out for Tom Cruise and Clay Aiken if I were you guys.
6) If you want to be a serial killer, don't have colored skin. If you are colored, you'll be the first person the police will go after. You know their motto: "If it's white, it's alright. If it's black, send it back." [JUST KIDDING!]
7) If someone tries to pull you over to fix your tire and he doesn't look like Jesse James, those AMERICAN CHOPPER dudes, Vin Diesel, or Burt Reynolds, I'd keep driving. Stopping will probably cost you more than just paying cash at Maaco.
8) The Zodiac was ambidextrous. So am I, just not when it comes to writing.
9) If someone has a house full of nothing but squirrels running around all over the place, he probably needs medical attention. After all, squirrels are attracted to nuts.
10) If someone calls you and just breathes heavy before hanging up, the caller is probably up to no good. Or he has a bad case of asthma. Someone give the guy a pump!
THE FINAL HOWL
ZODIAC is very engrossing and a well-made film on all levels. It's an honest crime thriller that brings tension and intrigue to a real story that still has yet to be closed. Definitely on my top films list of 2007, ZODIAC is a film that will grip you from beginning to end.