Zodiac (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Zodiac is a police procedural - a sort of souped-up, ultra-long episode of Law & Order. Based on the 1986 "true crime" book by Robert Graysmith, the movie looks back on one of the nation's most sinister unsolved crimes: the Northern California serial killings by the so-called "Zodiac killer." Although no arrest was ever made and the case now resides on the SFPD's inactive list, many journalists, cops, and investigators had their own "favorite" candidates for the identity of Zodiac. The movie follows the hunt by cartoonist-turned-writer Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he seeks to unmask the villain.

To its credit, Zodiac is faithful to its source material. However, from a stylish director like David Fincher, the straightforward, no-frills approach is a little bit of a letdown. The digital photography is sharp, but there's nothing remarkable about it. There's no sense of the cinematic flair that has marked Fincher's previous efforts (even Alien 3, for all of its faults, was visually dynamic). One can count on one hand the number of flourishes apparent during the nearly three-hour running time.

During its first hour, Zodiac unfolds along three parallel trajectories. The killer systematically eliminates victims (the crimes are re-enacted based on the survivor testimony contained in Graysmith's book). The police, led by detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) investigate and collect clues. And newspaper people like Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Graysmith fill the papers with speculation and fact. Then, a little more than a third of the way through the book, the Zodiac killer's spree stops and the movie chronicles Graysmith's obsessive hunt to uncover his identity. He conducts interviews, pours over old files, and eventually comes up with the perfect suspect: Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), who is damned by circumstantial evidence.

Zodiac does not promise an impartial perspective of the search for the killer. Since it's based on Graysmith's book, it represents the author's viewpoint and the facts are slanted in favor of his preferred suspect. Whether Allen was the Zodiac killer or not is something we'll never know (he died more than a decade ago), but the film stacks the deck in his favor to avoid being completely open ended. Certainly, few who see this film will leave the theater frustrated by the real-world fact that the case remains unsolved.

That Zodiac draws conclusions isn't its problem (to the degree that it has a problem) - the structure is. While the killer is active and the police investigation is in full throttle, there's tension and momentum. It's a cat-and-mouse game. But when the focus shifts to Graysmith, the film shifts into neutral. While there's a certain amount of fascination associated with following an investigator tracking down disintegrating leads and digging through mounds of old records, it's not cinematic, and this at times makes the second half of Zodiac sluggish. Fincher's attempts to create tension (anonymous phone calls with heavy breathing, a creepy film buff who might be dangerous) inject suspense, but the intensity level is low. As thrillers go, most of Zodiac is more of a slow burn than an explosion - not necessarily a bad thing, but it requires patience. The running length is problematic. Fincher is so determined to meticulously recreate Graysmith's investigation that he risks losing his audience. There are numerous dramatically effective sequences during the second half, but the uneven pace results in stagnant periods.

So where is Fincher in all of this? Zodiac has a generic look and feel that is at variance with what we have come to expect from the director. Even Fincher's early music videos had more style than this. That's not to say that the film's direction is inept. Technically, it's fine and there are some nice helicopter shots (and a nifty time lapse sequence of a building being constructed), but there's nothing special about it. It's as if Fincher is saying, "Look! I can do regular stuff too!" There was more menace and atmosphere in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, another film about a real-life serial killer.

The performances, like Fincher's direction, are competent. Jake Gyllenhaal is understated as usual, but that's appropriate for his low-key character. As Graysmith's obsession grows, Gyllenhaal comes alive. Mark Ruffalo is very good at being petulant but has trouble with sincerity. Robert Downey Jr. once again plays the flamboyant rogue with alcohol/substance abuse problems. Art imitating life, I suppose, but he can do this kind of role in his sleep. Arguably, the best performance belongs to John Carroll Lynch who captures Allen's creepiness without doing anything overt. Brian Cox steals a few scenes as Melvin Belli (he even gets to make a Star Trek reference).

Although the entirety of the movie spans 22 years, from 1969 until 1991, the majority of the scenes transpire in 1969 and the early '70s, and the film is at its most effective during those years. Zodiac becomes fragmented when it starts lurching ahead to highlight the "big moments" in Graysmith's investigation. It's difficult to be too harsh on Zodiac because the subject is interesting (such is often the case with serial killers) and it is fascinating to observe as the investigatory pieces fall into place. Ultimately, however, the length and uneven pacing are stumbling blocks with which an audience must contend. Patient viewers will be rewarded; others may wish for something with less subtlety and more verve.

Zodiac (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:43
U.S. Release Date: 2007-03-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1