What do you expect from a movie about a serial killer? Discordant violin music? Tense chase scenes? It puts the lotion in the basket? Well, none of those things appear in Zodiac, director David Fincher’s new movie about the real-life murders that occurred in 1970s San Francisco. Focusing more on the investigators, the movie is a lot more talkative than you’d expect. The hero of the story is Richard Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who is fascinated by the killer (who calls himself the Zodiac) once the Chronicle receives a letter with a coded cipher that he demands to have printed by the newspaper. A fan of puzzles himself, Graysmith starts teaming up with the crime reporter (played by Robert Downey Jr.), and the investigating detective (played by Mark Ruffalo) to feed his growing obsession to solve the riddle of the Zodiac’s identity. It sounds like the perfect cat-and-mouse story: the intrepid reporter, detective, and cartoonist piece together all the clues (aided by more letters from the Zodiac) to eventually outwit the killer and capture him. However, this case is actually still open. The killer was never caught. This movie is more interested in the effect that the Zodiac hunt had on the lives of the hunters than on the race to catch him.
Maybe it was the acting, the camera work, the art direction, or all three, but there is a very authentic feel to this movie throughout. The whole thing had a true 70s feel (Don’t you find that 70s movies have a kind of beige, old-newspaper staleness to them?). There were a few scenes reenacting the original murders that were so natural and ordinary (i.e. without scary music or silly cat-jumping tricks) that they left me with a lingering sense of creepiness. It’s like I might turn around and find the Zodiac following me on the subway. [He shudders as he types.]
Along with the ones already mentioned, the cast is filled with character actors, including Philip Baker Hall as a hand-writing analyst, Donal Logue and Elias Koteas as investigating officers, Chloe Sevigny as Graysmith’s wife, Clea Duvall as a person of interest, and others who you’d probably recognize if you saw them. Downey does his thing like no one else can–taking a chatty, charismatic character down the sad road to tragedy. Gyllenhaal also does a good job of portraying Graysmith as a super-boy-scout whose naive enthusiasm turns to obsession over this case. At first I was really rooting for him to succeed, but as time went on and he was losing loved ones over his investigation, I just wanted him to snap out of it (unfortunately his motivation was never explained to my satisfaction). The investigation of the Zodiac is ultimately portrayed as a fool’s errand that costs them all so much of their lives.
All that being said, I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the movie as a drama rather than a thriller. In fact, two of my favourite scenes were of the heart-pounding variety: one where the investigators come face-to-face with a potential Zodiac for a bit of suspicion-filled questioning; and the other where Graysmith ends up in the home of a suspect’s coworker who may be more dangerous than he seems. I know those are both Hollywood-y scenes that are more about sensationalism than drama, but what can I say, I love a good nail-biter.
My conclusion is that David Fincher is trying to break the mold of serial killer films. With the gradual erosion of mega-movie-serial-killer Hannibal Lecter by bad sequels and prequels, perhaps Fincher is trying to rescue the Zodiac story by stripping away all the typical thriller excesses to recover the real-life drama beneath. That could explain why this movie ends up telliing us more about the men following the Zodiac than the killer himself. Unfortunately, I just don’t think the real-life drama measures up to the mystery left untold. (3.5 out of 5)