Friday, August 27, 2010

"Zodiac" (2007)

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr.
Written by James Vanderbilt
Directed by David Fincher

I think David Fincher is one of the most talented film directors working today.  He's got a wildly varied filmography of movies ranging from sci-fi ("Alien 3") to dark comedy ("Fight Club") to mystery thriller ("Seven"), and will next tackle, believe it or not, the story of Facebook of all things with "The Social Network."  In 2007 he directed "Zodiac," the true story of a serial killer in the late 1960s and 1970s who terrorized northern California by claiming to be responsible for multiple vicious murders in the media.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who enjoys solving puzzles.  When a letter taking responsibility for a grizzly murder arrives at the Chronicle offices, he decides to take a shot at solving the mysterious cipher that accompanies it.  Investigating the letters and the crimes are also the Chronicle's star crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), San Francisco detectives David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), as well as officers from other police departments such as Sergeant Mulanax (Elias Koteas) and Captain Ken Narlow (Donal Logue). 

The film follows these characters as they weed their way through a mountain of circumstantial and shaky evidence, much of which seems to be contradictory, while the Zodiac taunts both the media and the police for not being able to discover his identity.  Several suspects come and go, none of whom seem better than Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carrol Lynch), but Toschi and Armstrong aren't able to make their case.  As the investigation drags on, it begins to take tolls on the personal lives of those involved.  Avery becomes a raging alcoholic.  Armstrong resigns in order to spend time with his children, and Graysmith's wife takes the children out of the house rather than see him put them all in danger.

The years go by, and Zodiac begins to fade from the public consciousness, but Graysmith, through sheer determination, revives the investigation with the aim of writing a book.  He can't get Avery to help him, but Toschi and the others reluctantly help, and then become more and more helpful as time goes on and the evidence seems to be leading somewhere.  But the evidence leads somewhere both surprising and yet, expected. 

The ultimate resolution of the movie is a bit vague - the unfortunate nature of the film being based on a true, unsolved case.  But that doesn't make "Zodiac" any less fascinating as a film.  Slow-paced, methodical, but extremely in-depth, "Zodiac" is a fascinating exploration of the lengthy investigation into the Zodiac Killer.  The cast is quite able, attacking their roles in fine, if understated, performances.  Gyllenhaal is quite good as the shy, nervous Graysmith, who slowly becomes braver as he becomes more obsessed with finding the Zodiac.  Downey is, of course, excellent as Avery.  Ruffalo is earnest, his growing frustration over the years growing palpable. 

"Zodiac" isn't perfect; it has some pacing issues that creep in over the course of its two hour, forty-five minute run-time.  Characters disappear for long stretches of time as the film focuses on other aspects of the investigation.  This is a bit strange, since I wasn't bored at any point, it's just that a few points in the film I suddenly thought to myself, "I wonder where so and so has gotten to..."

The lack of a satisfying conclusion also hurts the film, even though that's not fair to hold against it.  The truth is that the Zodiac killer was never truly identified.  The prime suspect in the case died of a heart attack before the police were able to pin anything on him.  Even now, DNA evidence is inconclusive as well.  So it's not the film's fault that it doesn't really have much of an ending (a problem I also had with the film "Hollywoodland", about the murder of "Superman" star George Reeves) but it does kind of hurt the entertainment value of it.  Still, the film makes its case (which one can assume is the same made by Graysmith's book upon which it is based) that Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac killer, and that's enough for me.

But Fincher's direction is a sure, guiding hand through would could easily have been a confusing mess, especially one so lengthy.  He does a wonderful job transporting us back to the period, with a lavish production that spares no detail.  The film is loaded with gorgeous, detailed cinematography, so even beyond the fascinating script, the film is never boring to watch. The scenes of murder and kidnapping are chilling, even frightening in how steady and methodically they're staged. 

So despite a bit of a non-ending and some pacing issues, "Zodiac" is a fascinating mystery.  The labyrinthine nature of the evidence is handled well by a fine script and a talented cast and expert director.  Fincher has once again delivered a gorgeous, enthralling and entertaining film.