Zodiac -- 2 Disc Directors Cut DVD Review


Reviewed by Scott Weinberg

I never thought I'd say this about a David Fincher movie, but Zodiac seems to work a lot better on the small screen than the large. Perhaps it has something to do with the 2.5-hour running time, or maybe it's just that watching this tale "up close" gives you a chance to get into the characters a bit more. All I know is that while I really liked Zodiac after seeing it in cinemas, after sitting through it again on DVD (and in the slightly longer "director's cut" form), I'm beginning to think it could be a future classic of the genre. Take the best of the serial killer genre, inject a colorful dose of good old fashioned "police procedural," and mix it with the coolest and grittiest "newspaper man" stories you've ever seen, stretch the thing out so it feels like a actual event of a story, and cast the thing with some really great actors. That's Zodiac. Oh, and if you bought the original (bare-bones) DVD, just give it away to a friend right now, because this 2-disc director's cut is pretty freaking fantastic.

So before we get to the new stuff, here's my original review of Zodiac. It's kind of lengthy, but I think it's one of the few really good reviews I did last year. Feel free to skip it though. Really, it's fine.

You'd probably walk into a David Fincher-directed serial killer flick with certain expectations: slick and elaborate visuals, an ice-cold exterior, and a decidedly grim perspective on the human condition. But as the long-yet-satisfying Zodiac moseys across the screen, you'll begin to notice that the generally florid filmmaker is appreciably more sedate here. It's as if Fincher, with a fistful of distinctive films under his belt (including Seven, Fight Club, and Panic Room), has decided to leap back to the mid-'70s and deliver a character-based and fact-centric procedural not unlike the best of Sidney Lumet or Alan J. Pakula. In other words, if you're looking for a psycho-thriller in the Silence of the Lambs vein, then Zodiac might not be your cup of tea. (I said "might.") If, however, you think you'd enjoy a true-life serial killer story that's presented in an exhaustively thorough (and completely engrossing) fashion, then this might be your new favorite movie of 2007.

Based on actual events (and hewing very closely to those events), Zodiac tells the story of a gun- and knife-wielding maniac who stalked San Francisco starting in the late 1960s. But actually ... Zodiac is not so much about the killer and his victims as it is about a trio of hard-working nobodies who slaved (for years) in an effort to unmask the unpredictable villain. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is the crime reporter who slowly becomes a participant in the long and painful story; David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is the police inspector who, along with partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), follows every lead, questions every suspect and struggles mightily through every dead end; young political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an outsider who takes a casual interest in the Zodiac story before becoming more than a little obsessed with the killer's identity.

Zodiac is a sober, serious-minded, and confident movie that assumes you'll either enjoy every tiny piece of historical minutiae -- or you'll simply zone out and go see something a little speedier. And while I'll admit that I fidgeted just a bit through the film's 160-minute running time, at no point did I feel bored or desperately wishing they'd wrap things up already. The three leads are uniformly excellent throughout: Downey brings his patented blend of sarcasm and sincerity to an already colorful character; Ruffalo is a hot-tempered but exceedingly intelligent police officer; Gyllenhaal strikes a perfect balance between "Boy Scout noble" and "borderline genius." Even without James Vanderbilt's consistently impressive screenplay to back them up, the three actors make Zodiac simply fun to watch. (Well, not "fun," per se, but certainly entertaining.)

I'm certain I'm not the only one who'll make this comparison, but Zodiac could be the All the President's Men of serial killer movies. It's a movie less interested in the lurid details of murder or the salacious joy of stalking than it is in how far our society will go to protect and inform its citizens when a raving lunatic is on the loose. Zodiac almost feels like an anthology piece; each of the three main characters maintain equal importance in Vanderbilt's screenplay, and the men only seem to cross each other's paths once in a while. (If there's an early Oscar candidate for 2007, it'd have to be editor Angus Wall.) There's just a whole lot in this movie that works: the accurate-yet-not-goofy 1970s period design, Harris Savides' moodily effective cinematography, and a supporting cast stocked with names like Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Brian Cox, Donal Logue, Chloe Sevigny , Adam Goldberg and Philip Baker Hall. Zodiac is not only a powerful, intelligent, and subtly enthralling movie; it's also a "movie geek" sort of movie, and that's always fun.

But what's most impressive about Zodiac is the step forward it represents for director David Fincher. (And that's not a knock on the filmmaker; I love the guy's movies.) One thing we've learned throughout the course of Fincher's half-dozen-movie career is that the guy loves his visual tricks. He likes to wedge his camera through door locks, skylights and gun barrels. His exteriors are moodily dank and shadow-strewn; his editing tricks are many and slick. But with Zodiac (aside from a few rather nifty little transitional segments) Mr. Fincher is shooting straight from the chest. It's as if he didn't want to draw any attention away from the facts, the people, and the events of this unpleasantly true story, and so he zipped up his bag of tricks and went for a considerably more restrained approach. Proof positive that talent is one thing, but versatility is what keeps people coming back.

OK, so what can the already-fans expect from this new DVD set? As far as the "director's cut" thing goes, this version runs about 4 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. Only two scenes have been added, but I don't want to say what they are because that seems like spoiling the fun. (Check out Mr. Fincher's audio commentary for the answer.) I think both additions are quite cool, so this makes one of the rare "director's cuts" that I prefer to the theatrical version. Plus, really; if you're down for 158 minutes, you're down for 162 minutes.

And I believe I mentioned the word "commentary." Here you'll find two: One a solo track with director David Fincher, and the other with producer Brad Fischer, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, novelist James Ellroy, and actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. Between the movie and both (really solid) chat-tracks, you movie geeks will have almost nine hours of Zodiac fun -- but nobody says you have to do all three in one night, right?

When you're done with all that, you can move over to disc two, which is split up into two categories: "The Film" and "The Facts." In section one you'll find Zodiac Deciphered, a fantastic hour-long making-of piece that covers the basics and a lot more. And this is no EPK fluff piece; all of the supplemental pieces are exceedingly well-made and creatively (sometimes creepily) constructed. Next up is the 15-minute The Visual Effects of Zodiac, which covers just what you think it does. (But there are some pretty subtle tricks going on in this movie!) Also included are three pre-visualization sequences and the film's original theatrical trailer. Moving over to "The Facts," we find two really excellent inclusions: The feature-length (100 minutes!) This is the Zodiac Speaking and the 45-minute His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen. Together, I'd call this section the definitive dissection of the actual Zodiac case. (Well, obviously I haven't seen every Zodiac piece ever made, but this stuff makes me wish there were big awards for DVD extras.)

Bottom line: Hats off to Paramount and the consistently excellent DVD producer David Prior for treating Zodiac like the classic it may very well become. I was a little bit irked when Zodiac first arrived on DVD in rather skimpy fashion, but all is forgiven now that this set is a part of my collection. It's only January, but this might very well stand up as one of the best DVDs of 2008.