Review written by Nathan Vass
Zodiac is David Fincher's masterpiece. It stands as a monolith, the shadow of which all other serial killer films cower under. Much like Oliver Stone's epic JFK negated the need for anyone to make any more Kennedy assassination movies, Zodiac is the last word on the crime investigation picture. The two films share other similarities- both are huge, sprawling films that cover vast amounts of intensely detailed material. Both run three hours in length and follow an investigative storyline. Although they differ greatly in tone, the two films are both exquisitely made works by artists at the height of their powers. Zodiac illuminates the realities of criminal investigation with such realism that it is simply no longer possible to take conventional thrillers and shows like CSI seriously. Fincher depicts police work for what it is- a long, slow, arduous, and painstaking process that can easily drive someone insane.
The film follows the search for the notorious Zodiac killer, who terrorized 1970s San Francisco. He was never found, and was arguably the first killer to gain notoriety by way of media exposure- a phenomenon we are all far too familiar with today. The story begins in 1958, near a drive-in, where a young couple in search of privacy has parked their car. It is night, and they are isolated and alone. Since we know the subject matter of the film, and have all seen thrillers before, we know what is about to happen. It's a testament to Fincher's directorial abilities that the murder which follows is genuinely frightening. His direction throughout is much more muted than his previous works, but his touch remains unmistakable. The compositions are effective and only as bright as they have to be, and the color palette is a muted mix of beiges, greens, browns, and blacks. Much like the work of Stanley Kubrick, watching a Fincher film is always a riveting experience; both are perfectionists of the highest order. Fincher's famous attention to detail is very apparent here. He reportedly insisted on 15 takes of a shot of Mark Ruffalo handling some photos in a manila folder; later on in the production, he did 30-odd takes of Ruffalo walking down a hallway. Knowing that everyhitng in the frame, down to the smallest detail, is intended precisely as shown, makes watching the film doubly fascinating. As with his other work, the atmosphere is dark and brooding, and the tension is always present, sometimes building to unbearable levels- believe me, you will not want to drive home on any country roads after seeing this movie. Another scene in a basement is orchestrated with such tightly wound precision that the audience breathed a very audible collective sigh of relief when it was over.
Much of the film, however, is dialogue. This is more of a docudrama than a thriller, but it remains tremendously interesting for its entire runtime. Part of the reason for this is that we- movie audiences, that is- are unaccustomed to seeing the inner workings of the investigative process. This is a world far removed from the glamorous high-tech thrillers of today. Much like Traffic and City of God, it's fascinating simply on the level of learning how these hidden worlds function. The film doesn't skimp on showing the complexities of what actually happens during a criminal investigation- the various people involved, the lines of communication that are opened and closed, and most importantly, how investigating such morbid affairs ruins the lives of those involved.
The film is also fascinating because of its period setting- here is a rare film of the counterculture era with no interest in hippies or young people. We get to see how the rest of the country was living at the time. Period detail and atmosphere are realistic and subtle- rather than shoving the period down our throats with loud music and bad haircuts, Fincher offers a sense of being there. We don't feel like we're watching a period piece, but rather the sensation of simply watching events unfold before our eyes. The sense of something big, happening now, informs the first two acts of the film, as various parties work to find the killer as he commits more murders. Things get more personal in the third act, but not in the way we're accustomed to. There is no climactic showdown with the killer. Nobody's family is taken hostage. Fincher and writer James Vanderbilt avoid cliché's like the plague- level of freshness here is really quite extraordinary.
The film's publicity tagline is "There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer," and it is a rare tagline that honestly communicates the film's central theme. The film follows three characters- a journalist (Robert Downey, Jr.), a detective (Mark Ruffalo), and a cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal, playing Robert Graysmith, author of the bestseller "Zodiac"), An obsession with the case finds its way into the psyche of the three characters, and slowly consumes them all. Midway through the film, the Downey, Jr. character collapses under the weight of this stress, leaving only the Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal characters to continue investigating into the third act. After a while, Ruffalo realizes how the consumed he's become, and drops out. In the end, only the Gyllenhaal character, a civilian, is still investigating, oblivious to the irreparable damage he's caused himself and his family by doing so. More than most films I know of, the primary concern of this film is the inner workings of the mind and its capacity for detrimental obsessions. It explores this territory with a truthfulness that is unprecedented in the crime genre. Multitudes of films laughingly call themselves "psychological thrillers;" Zodiac actually is one.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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