Going into Zodiac, I was preemptively annoyed that it was such a long film, running 2 hours and 40 minutes. Director David Fincher even made the bold claim that he "couldn't find a way" to make it shorter, which made me roll my eyes. But when I went blinking back into the real world, I felt I actually could have watched even more. For one thing, it was a great movie and I really enjoyed it. For another, though, the case piqued my interest, and I still have questions.
The film primarily follows Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1960s and 1970s as he becomes gradually obsessed with the case of the Bay Area serial killer, The Zodiac. The killer sent letters and cryptograms to the Chronicle in which he claimed to have committed several murders and threatened many more if the newspaper did not run his letters. Thus, he became a media sensation. The Zodiac's elusiveness became infuriating and embarrassing for multiple police departments, and eventually, the letters stopped arriving. Long after the case faded from public interest, however, a few journalists and investigators were still obsessed with the Zodiac - Graysmith in particular — so
Gyllenhaal's Graysmith is the only real bleak spot in the cast of extremely capable actors. He comes across as a wide-eyed goody-goody with no identifiable reason why he gives up his life to pursue a case that is all but forgotten. Ruffalo far outshines him as investigator Dave Toschi, creating a character you immediately trust and want to succeed and playing nicely off his partner William Armstrong ("ER"'s Anthony Edwards). Robert Downey Jr. does his normal thing as the seasoned crime journalist Paul Avery, delivering his cynical lines in the usual deadpan, slightly effeminate manner.
One of the most fascinating things about the story is how the Zodiac used the media in a period of technological history that is drastically different from today's. It was a time when a call trace could take 15 minutes, few police departments even had a fax machine, and people didn't have cell phones, not to mention cameras in their cell phones. The way this one person could create such a public frenzy and elude the grasp of so many is baffling to modern audiences and was certainly of interest to the filmmakers.
With comparatively little gore, it’s a far cry from Fincher’s Seven or Fight Club, coming off more like a documentary in its meticulous attention to every piece of evidence. By two-thirds of the way into it, we are as worn down by the investigation as the characters are, and while that is true, the movies’ timeline sweeps along too swiftly to elicit much frustration. The way Fincher builds suspense is admirable, and the way he sustains this suspense and unravels each discovery even more so. The subject matter could have lent itself to more bloodshed and unrestrained, Hollywood-y deviation from the facts, but Fincher didn't fall into those traps. The storytelling is steady and controlled, creating - despite no actual resolution to the case - a fully satisfying movie.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures