March 13, 2007 > ZODIAC
By A Film Review by Jeremy Inman
ZODIAC isn't what you'd expect from a movie about a serial killer, especially when it's directed by the guy who brought us the gruesome SEVEN. It has its share of suspense and a few glimpses into the brutality of the notorious Zodiac Killer's crimes, but the main focus of the film is the exhaustive manhunt for this killer and the ordeal of the men and women involved.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a series of apparently random murders stunned the Bay Area. A man calling himself "The Zodiac" began claiming responsibility for these crimes through a series of letters written to prominent newspapers. Before long an almost state-wide panic and media circus was swirling around the topic. At the center of this vortex were San Francisco Inspector David Toschi, San Francisco Chronicle writer Paul Avery, and cartoonist Robert Graysmith - a man who becomes obsessed with the Zodiac and who eventually wrote the book on which the film is based.
The film claims to be based entirely on factual data from the Zodiac killings, just as Graysmith's book was, but it goes to great lengths about one specific suspect. However, since the film is based on actual events and the Zodiac's identity was never discovered, the film obviously can't give moviegoers closure. For this reason, it was wise of Fincher not to treat ZODIAC like a run-of-the-mill slasher. Fans of the genre would expect certain conventions which a movie of this caliber would not allow, not to mention the fabrication which would be required. There's no "Scooby Doo" unmasking scene in the third act of this movie. Instead, the scenes of the Zodiac committing his murders play out the way they would have read in the police report, only revealing details sustained over time. No clear shot of the Zodiac's face is ever shown, and the killings are brutal but quick.
These crimes, however, represent a small percentage of the overall film. Instead, we follow the men who are most intimately related to the Zodiac manhunt. The film takes an interesting look at the process of dealing with an attention-hungry maniac who insisted on making his crimes and his beliefs public. Often, his letters would assert that if they were not printed on the front page, he would be forced to kill even more victims. This level of public view served only to complicate the procedure; scared citizens who thought they might know the Zodiac were calling the station 24 hours a day, lengthening an ordeal which might have resolved more quickly if the police could have operated at their usual level of secrecy.
In its two and a half hours, the film definitely makes the audience feel the ordeal. Part of this is because of the film's length, but more importantly it's the outstanding performances from the three leads: Jake Gyllenhaal as cartoonist Graysmith, Robert Downey Jr. as writer Avery, and Mark Ruffalo as Inspector Toschi. Furthermore, even they were meant to experience the ordeal as much as possible; director Fincher would sometimes do 40 or 50 takes per shot and then just erase the camera's hard drive before doing 20 more. Sure, this almost guarantees that he'll get at least one shot he can use, but it certainly grinds a level of exhaustion into the actors that appropriately permeates their performances throughout the film. Robert Downey Jr. would reportedly urinate into bottles that he would then place under Fincher's chair to demonstrate just how upset he was for not being allowed to leave the set for such exhaustive expanses of time. And yet, it's Downey who steals the show every time his character Avery is on screen.
Obviously, Fincher knows what he's doing. This is the guy who filmed FIGHT CLUB. While ZODIAC bears some of Fincher's more familiar visual tendencies, the look of the film is akin to a more traditional Hollywood film, which serves the atmosphere well. Since the story takes place throughout the 60s and 70s, the flashy, super-stylized look of FIGHT CLUB or PANIC ROOM just wouldn't feel right.
Fincher's a talented and well-respected director working with seasoned performers, a collaboration resulting in an engrossing and thoroughly riveting piece of drama - an intelligent and finely-crafted film going experience.
ZODIAC is definitely not just another tired old slasher movie.