Zodiac: 3 & ½ Stars (out of 5)
Director David Fincher has made a name for himself with thrillers. His latest never reaches the heights of The Game or Se7en, in fact it may well be his least “thrilling” film, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.
In place of the thriller I expected Fincher delivered a historic take of how one man’s evil deeds led to obsessions that cost many good men dearly.
It’s slow to get going, and the early scenes of the Zodiac killer’s slayings seem more appropriate in the later Friday the 13th flicks. If the film has one major flaw, it’s that the Zodiac killer himself never really seems that menacing or evil.
If the killer is the weak point of the film, the heroes are the film’s strength. Once the film leaves the early killings, and moves on to the investigation of the crimes, it picks up steam. If you show up 25 minutes late you might enjoy the film much more than if you were there to see the credits roll.
After seemingly random murders the police and local newspapers receive letters and coded transmissions from the killer who calls himself the Zodiac. Two cops (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) will spend years following dead-ends and false leads. At the same time the killer will destroy the life of the Chronicle’s best reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) who has a fondness for alcohol (and other mood altering drugs), and set a young cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) with a fondness of puzzles and codes on a quest to discover the identity of the man called Zodiac.
The story about the San Fransisco serial killer isn’t really about the killer, it’s about the men who put their lives, careers, and relationships on the line to find him and bring him to justice. Fincher creates a rising tension that is palpable on screen, and at the same time balances it with some unexpected laughs that keep you off-balance.
Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo provide the film’s driving force to solve a crime long after anyone else cares to remember it. And Downey is just a sight to behold in a performance that eats up chunks of scenery and provides many of the films best one-liners and visual jokes (look out for the buttons).
Also worth noting are the many appearances from familiar faces including Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, Dermot Mulroney, and Philip Baker Hall, among others. It’s a film with a recognizable face around every turn.
The film supports Robert Graysmith’s (Gyllenhaal) theories of the killer’s identity, whose book was used as the basis for the screenplay by James Vanderbilt. Although the film has an agenda to show the events through these men who lived them it never sets out to prove their theories, just present them as compelling as possible and let the audience decide. It’s a little rough in places, and never quite as good as it should be, but somehow Zodiac still succeeds in recreating a series of events that are worth talking about.
Zodiac is Rated R for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images, with a running time of 160 minutes.