Dir: David Fincher, 2007, USA, 158 mins
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr, Cloë Sevigny
David Fincher has had something of a charmed career delving into the darker side of the human psyche. His first take on the serial killer movie, Se7en (1995) stands as a modern day benchmark and heralded in a battery of pale imitators. Now, over ten years on, Fincher returns to the genre, tackling the true-life figures of San Francisco’s Zodiac murders, real people who, in no small part, informed a generation of filmmakers and ushered in the cinematic stalwart, Dirty Harry (1971).
Zodiac hit the headlines in 1969 when he wrote letters to San Francisco’s major newspapers confessing to the recent murder a couple of teenagers, gifting his identity to the authorities in a coded message, and promising a killing spree should the letters not be published. The case took a macabre stranglehold on the city for over a decade and took the lives of Homicide Inspector David Toschi (Ruffalo), the Chronicle’s crime writer, Paul Avery (Downey Jr.), and resident cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) into the grip of a murky obsession.
Luckily, obsession is Fincher’s bread and butter and he is able to spread it thickly, and with a studded hunting knife. There is a careful, composed, almost fetishist power to the murder scenes in Zodiac. Fincher eschews purely dramatic re-enactments and instead brings his innovative cinematic eye to the violent killings. It is interesting that these de bravura moments are nestled in between rather conventional, though exquisitely realised, procedural drama. Downey Jr brings a tragi-comic majesty to Avery, in a performance that seems to underpin the very style of the film, and Gyllenhaal’s doe-eyed stares have managed (yet again) to find him perfectly cast, this time as the chronically-misfit Graysmith, on whose one-man-crusading work the film is based.
Zodiac is a dense, measured and meticulously detailed film. When Graysmith walks into the Vallejo County Police Station and is greeted with a wall of files and evidence, it is easy to believe the immensity of the case, given the film’s constant barrage of names, places, faces, scenes, reports and ciphers. The resulting tone is dry but intoxicating. Intoxicating to the point that it is no great leap to buy into the feverish obsession of Graysmith. Everyone in the audience gets a tantalising taste of that dangerous game.
And so does the director.
It is clear that Fincher and the film’s writer, James Vanderbilt, have been caught up in the Zodiac’s allure. While the film takes its lead from Graysmith’s works, the filmmakers have sought to underpin his investigations with their own footwork and they have pointed their own fingers. Obsessives unconnected with the film have debunked the final conclusions of Zodiac, claiming they have been clouded by Graysmith’s distorted take. At the same time though, these same critics praise the film’s acknowledgement that the case is now blanketed in second guesses and misremembered happenings.
It is a kind of knowing nod that confirms Zodiac’s place outside the genre. The film is less concerned with the actual crimes than the effects that crimes have on the lives of those on the periphery. An entangling film that will have audiences leaving cinemas ever so slightly scarred.
The Zodiac DVD includes the featurette This is Zodiac
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