Writer: James Vanderbilt (based on the book by Robert Graysmith)
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector David Toschi), Robert Downey, Jr (Paul Avery), Anthony Edwards (Inspector William Armstrong), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), John Carroll Lynch (Arthur Leigh Allen), Chloë Sevigny (Melanie), John Getz (Templeton Peck), Elias Koteas (Sgt Jack Mulanax), Dermot Mulroney (Captain Marty Lee) & Donal Logue (Ken Narlow)
David Fincher made his name with Se7en (1995), a dark serial-killer thriller that left a lasting impression on police procedurals with its relentlessly grim, sinister and dark colour palette. 12 years later, he's back in similar territory, albeit with a story ripped straight from reality...
Zodiac is the real life story of "The Zodiac Killer", a serial-killer who stalked the San Francisco Bay Area in the late-60s, and delighted in sending cryptic messages and taunts to the press and police. Fincher's film is actually based on the book by Robert Graysmith, who worked as a cartoonist for the Chronicle at the time, here played by Jake Gyllenhaal, eventually becoming an authority on the case, driven by an obsession to unmask Zodiac that eventually destroyed his marriage.
It's that obsessive drive to catch a killer that informs Zodiac every step of the way. Unlike most films dealing with killers -- which coolly follow the investigators' progress, interspersed with a parallel story for the enigmatic killer – Fincher focuses exclusively on the day-to-day investigation. Zodiac may be the title, but the eponymous killer is rarely seen and his identity remains a secret, although the film does build a strong case against the "number one" suspect.
For some, this will be a maddening film, as its resolution isn't conclusive, and there are many questions left unanswered. I can understand that irritation, but seeing as it's an accurate reflection of reality... you just have to bow to it. That's what happened.
Fincher does an admirable job of keeping a very talkative, exposition-heavy, 158-minute film rolling along merrily. By following the facts, Zodiac does have an edge over many of its genre rivals, as every event, character and development takes on a heightened feel.
Interestingly, the film has a triptych of heroes at its core: beginning with hotshot reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr), dovetailing into Inspector Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and culminating with Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), who is omnipresent throughout the entire film: going from intrigued amateur sleuth to crack personal investigator. All three are terrific performances, particularly Ruffalo's laconic-yet-determined streak, while Gyllenhaal nicely portrays Graysmith's growth from eager scamp to fixated loner.
In Zodiac, months and years pass by in minutes of screen-time, which makes the investigation quite distressing to watch stagnate – particularly as we're accustomed to fictional detectives solving crimes in weeks and months. As viewers, you become just as eager and desperate for resolution as Toschi and Graysmith!
As you'd expect from the director of Se7en, Fight Club and Panic Room, the film is wonderful to look at – without being flashy and exaggerated. The decades are evoked nicely, particularly the late-60s, and Fincher's staging of some of Zodiac's murders are efficient and grizzly, without being sensationalist. The horrific stabbing of one couple (in broad daylight), is particularly unflinching and numbing to watch.
Many critics hailed Zodiac as one of 2007's best films (certainly before the winter blew in the likes of There Will Be Blood), although the film underperformed at the box-office. I don't think it's destined to become a classic, but it's certainly an entertaining and convincing thriller; beautifully shot, well-acted and able to sustain your interest over a long running time.
Any supposed "deficiencies" in Zodiac's storyline are only reminders that reality is never as neat as the movies usually show... and we don't always get closure and a happy ending...
Budget: $65 million