Film Score: David Shire Cinematography: Harris Savides
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Edwards
Zodiac is such a well-made film. It could really be the template for all historical, true-crime dramas. In many ways it has the same gravitas as Capote from two years earlier. But dealing with the early seventies, in terms of wardrobe and set design, this is much more impressive. It all makes sense, though, knowing that David Fincher is the director. Fincher has slowly accrued a body of work over the last twenty years that will no doubt earn him--if not a lifetime achievement Oscar--then the accolades that go along with such an honor. Hopefully it will be while he is still alive. The film is the story of the Zodiac killer who was responsible for a several murders in the late sixties and early seventies in and around the San Francisco area. The screenplay is based on the book by Robert Graysmith who was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. During the time of the murders the newspaper received many letters from the killer, and coded messages that fascinated Graysmith. He befriended reporter Paul Avery, who covered the story, and became obsessed with the case, so much so that he allowed his life to fall apart because he couldn’t let go of trying to figure out who the real killer was. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Graysmith and does an excellent job conveying the unique personality of the obsessive artist who can’t rest until he finds the killer.
The film begins on July 4th, 1969 in Vallejo, California with Ciara Hughes and Lee Norris being shot by an unknown man at a secluded parking spot. Hughes is killed, but Norris survives. The scene then jumps ahead a month to Jake Gyllenhaal getting his young son ready for school in the morning. At work, the first letter from the Zodiac killer arrives and the editorial department, John Getz and reporter Robert Downey Jr. among them, has to decide what to do about it as the killer demands that his letter be published. When a couple in Salinas figure out the substitution cypher, Gyllenhaal connects the contents of the message with the film The Most Dangerous Game. Six months later another couple is attacked and killed in Napa, and when a cabbie is shot in San Francisco, police detectives Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards take over the investigation on all the connected cases claimed by the Zodiac killer. But the case soon becomes a nightmare when the two try to coordinate with the other jurisdictions in the area. Police sergeant Elias Koteas is happy to help, but others aren’t so eager. At the same time the obsessive Gyllenhaal and the laid back Downey form a sort of odd couple making their own parallel investigation--with no help from the SFPD. It’s not until a year and a half later that Ruffalo and Edwards find a suspect they like, John Carroll Lynch, and yet they still have a tough time convincing a judge to get a search warrant.
At this point a major time shift takes place, with a terrific CGI sequence in which the TransAmerica tower goes up in a time lapse of a bout thirty seconds. Lynch is eventually brought in, but the handwriting doesn’t match and they have to let him go. Another four years goes by and Edwards quits homicide, Downey is fired and moves to Sacramento, and Gyllenhaal is still obsessing over the case. What happens next is miraculous. Gyllenhaal goes to see Ruffalo, who is still frustrated by not being able to make any headway at all, and so he begins illegally feeing information to Gyllenhaal. But it works and that’s when things finally break open. There are so many things to like about this film. The muted tones and color manipulation of the images are spot on. While the obvious urge is to overdo the wardrobe, similar to something like Milk, by subduing the wild colors and exaggerated lines of the clothing of the day the emphasis here remains where it should be, on the actors and the story. Another brilliant aspect of the film is the use of popular music of the time by sound designer Ren Klyce. Where other films about the seventies seem to use the music of the decade indiscriminately--American Hustle comes to mind--there is a great sense of care at work here, selecting songs that not only are from that exact year but fit the mood of the scenes as well. And, of course, Fincher’s direction is tremendous. Despite the intensity of the drama unfolding, Fincher reins in the actor’s reaction to it, replicating the muted colors and sounds that accompany them.
All of the performances are first rate and, it must be said, Fincher knows how to get the best from even veteran actors. It was especially nice to see Anthony Edwards in a feature role at the end of his lengthy residence on the television show E.R. In addition to those mentioned above, character actor Philip Baker Hall plays a handwriting expert, Brian Cox plays defense lawyer Melvin Belli, and Chloë Sevigny does a convincing turn as Gyllenhaal’s new wife. And Fincher manages to elicit a delicious bit of suspense with Charles Fleischer. In fact, the first half of the film, while the killer is still active, is nowhere near as gripping as when Gyllenhall inches ever closer to the true identity of the killer in the second half. Fincher is a director who likes lots of takes, and some of the actors weren’t comfortable with that, but in the end the actor’s patience is rewarded when the performances on the screen match the care put into the rest of the production. Even before production Fincher, producer Brad Fischer and screenwriter James Vanderbilt actually conducted their own investigation into the case because Fincher was concerned that they were going to accuse someone of the crimes on film and wanted to be sure that the ending was credible. The film was ignored at Oscar time, probably because it wasn’t ready to release until after nominations had closed and couldn’t be considered until the end of the following year. Nevertheless, Zodiac is a captivating piece of cinema and yet another example of the excellence of David Fincher.