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. 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's 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 geniue." Even without James Vanderbilt's consistently impressive screenplay to back them up, the three actors make Zodiac simply fun to watch. (Well, not "fun," perse, 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.) But 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.