Wednesday, March 21, 2007


David Fincher is one of the most meticulous and skillful directors around today. He is also one of my favorites. Fincher brought us some modern classics with Se7en, Fight Club and the Game (even his forgettable Panic Room was an above average flick). He does it again with Zodiac. Fincher returns to the detective- almost film noir- style that he created for Se7en, and crafts a wonderful movie. Unlike Se7en, Zodiac is not so much a thriller as it is a straight up detective story, presenting one of the most intriguing unsolved mysteries in recent years.

If you've ever heard anything about the Zodiac Killer, you will know that this movie follows a series of unsolved murders in the San Fransisco area from the late sixties through the mid seventies. There seemed to be nothing linking the murders, except the fact that a mysteries person known as the Zodiac claimed responsibility. He communicated through letters and ciphers which he sent to newspapers. The movie follows police investigators and journalists as they try to track the killer.

The movie pushes three hours, but seldom drags. In fact, it gets better as it goes on. Fincher takes a little bit of time to hit his stride, showing some unnecessary and unimportant scenes of the actual murders early on. One of them actually elicited laughs from some in my theater (not entirely out of line either). Once the movie gets into the investigation, it starts to get interesting and develops the characters: Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) who heads the investigation for years, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the cartoonist turned recreational investigator who gave up everything for the case and eventually wrote the book this movie is based on, and Paul Avery (Rober Downy Jr.), a journalist who works with Graysmith, and reports on the Zodiac Killer. A fantastic cast makes up even the smaller roles. Brian Cox plays a comically sophisticated attorney, Anthony Edwards plays Ruffalo's partner, and John Caroll Lynch plays the prime Zodiac suspect. All of these actors play their parts astoundingly well.

Fincher always manages to insert a sort of subtle humor in his movies- at critical moments as well. There is one scene where Graysmith is questioning someone who he increasingly begins to suspect as being the Zodiac. As the subtle warning signs mount, Gyllenhaal's reactions make you chuckle, even in a scene that is tense and genuinely scary. Fincher is a master of suspense in this regard, keeping certain aspects light, while still being scary. Paul Avery is another vehicle for this tool, acting as a foil for Graysmith, Toschi, and just about every other character in the movie. He has a number of witty lines that he delivers with panache, and even though he is a tragic figure, falling into alcoholism, Downy keeps the character light and entertaining.

The aspect of this movie that intrigued me the most, and kept me interested was the duality between Ruffalo and Edward's investigator characters, and Gyllenhaal and Downy's characters. Each pair independently tried to figure out who the killer was, occasionally stepping on each others toes. There were even scenes that cut back and forth between the two, discussing the same issues, but going about it differently, and arriving at significantly different conclusions.

In the third act, however, the investigation has all but been forgotten, but Graysmith becomes increasingly more obsessed with it. Toschi agrees to help him in his research for his book, but only gives him enough information to get started- everything else must be done on his own. In a way, this almost gives him an advantage. All the murders took place in different counties, and the police forces refused to work together. This bogged down the investigation. Interestingly, the various officers were almost more willing to work with Graysmith than the other police departments, possibly because he was investigating about half a decade later. This section of the movie was my favorite. It was interesting how Toschi and Avery let the Zodiac killer nearly destroy their lives early on, then Graysmith gives up everything (his family and job) in his obsessive investigation.

The only thing I would have liked to seen improved on was the reasoning behind these various characters obsessions. With the relative few numbers of murders attributed to the Zodiac compared to others, why was the police force so concerned with this case as opposed to others? What caused Graysmith to give up his sanity for the investigation? Why did he lose his family (with which his relationship was never well developed)? Was it simply the ciphers?- he did enjoy puzzles after all. And why was Paul Avery...well...everything about him? These are questions I feel would have been better to address than showing the murders themselves. I can understand, however, how with a three hour movie, adding more dialogue heavy scenes, and subtracting the few action scenes would be a bad idea.

This movie was good, very good, but not excellent. It had a few flaws, some unnecessary scenes, and questions left unanswered (and I'm not referring the question of who was the killer). It wasn't Fincher's best, but it's better than most out there in the winter off-season.


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