The film: Zodiac: Director’s Cut (2007)
The Principals: Directed by David Fincher. Featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Brian Cox, Anthony Edwards, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, Adam Goldberg, James LeGros, John Getz, Charles Fleischer… Holy crap, who wasn’t in this movie? Was I in this movie? I think I might have been in this movie. I don’t see myself in the credits. Maybe I was uncredited…
The Premise: Based on Robert Graysmith’s books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, the film follows the infamous Zodiac murders of the late sixties/early seventies. The plot focuses on the author (played by Gyllenhall) as he goes from humble political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle to an obsessive who conducts his own ten-year investigation to discover the identity of the killer. The film begins with the July fourth murder that occurred in 1969. Soon after, several newspaper publications – including the Chronicle – receive a letter from the Zodiac killer himself admitting to the murder. Included in the letter is evidence in the form of details only the police knew, as well as a highly complex cipher message. From that moment, Fincher brings us in on the hunt – witnessing each murder as it takes place, investigating with the authorities while they try desperately to track down and discover the identity of the Zodiac, and following Graysmith’s spiral into obsession as he tries to solve the riddle on his own. At the same time, we’re experiencing the effects this case had on several of the people who were closely involved. To paraphrase Nick Nolte from another movie – we are in the shit.
Is It Good? This is one smart and intense flick. From the moment the first letter hits the desk of the Chronicle, the viewer is thrown directly into the chase. Fincher isn’t satisfied with just laying out the events on screen so you can simply watch how the murder case unfolded. No. Fincher wants you involved. It’s almost as if he invited you to a three hour murder mystery party, only the scenario being played out is based on a real case. You’re supplied with the clues as the police and the Chronicle receive them. You get to observe the testimony from witnesses, and you get the opportunity to piece things together along with Graysmith and the authorities. There are even misdirects and wild goose chases to throw you off. As you continue to watch the film, you find yourself engaged in the events and the investigation, almost to the point where you want to pull out a pen and note pad to take notes. And by the time you get to the end of the film, you aren’t insulted with a ham-fisted solution or the director’s opinion on who the killer is. Instead, you’re left to ponder the facts at hand and allowed to come to your own conclusion. And that’s one of the things that makes this such a great film – the way it draws you in. I found the film fascinating based on this aspect alone. I ended up looking up the Zodiac case on my own afterwards because the movie left me feeling intrigued by the case itself. It takes a clever film to do that.
And that’s only one aspect of what makes Zodiac so good. We haven’t even gotten into the performances yet. Fincher has assembled a top-notch group of thesps to handle the work load required to give weight and colour to each character. And there are a lot of characters this movie follows around! Our favourite gentleman of ferrite, Robert Downey Jr., offers a performance that is nothing short of what we already know him capable of. And this is right before his comeback explosion. His fellow Avenger Mark Ruffalo is great to watch as lead investigator David Toschi. You find yourself invested in his investigation almost based on the performance alone. You really want him to solve the case. Then there’s Gyllenhaal, Edwards, Cox – all deliver solid performances. Even single scene characters like Charles Fleischer nail the scenes they are in. The best part is that at no point is a performance wasted. Fincher offers a good balance between the multiple plotlines going on at the same time, giving every actor a chance to shine. At no point did I feel like the film jumped around too much. Each scene, each character’s moments are all there to serve as parts of a greater whole. Like the unsolved case it’s based on, Fincher has designed the film like a puzzle that needs to be pieced together. And it’s brilliantly executed.
The last thing worth noting is that Zodiac feels, in many ways, like a more effective slasher flick than many of the more recent attempts. Each murder featured on the screen is cold, harsh, and shocking. Often, Fincher intentionally plays the scene without any musical score, which just makes the atrocities being displayed seem even more real and intense. Other times, he effectively uses music ironically, which also causes the viewer’s blood to run cold while they watch the killer in action. These elements made me feel uneasy and at times effectively scared me when I first watched it many years ago. Upon my second viewing, those feelings were intact. It’s a rarity now, in my late thirties, for a film to affect me in such a way that I have to turn all the lights on in my house afterwards. Zodiac is a scary film. It’s an effective film. It’s a good film.
Is It Worth a Look? It’s unfortunate that Zodiac doesn’t really seem to stand out when people discuss films of this ilk, and maybe that’s because not many folks have actually seen it. It certainly didn’t do all that well in theaters, though it made quite a few top ten lists that year – including Roger Ebert’s. And Zodiac is definitely a film that should be seen. It’s gripping, engaging, and solid. At 162 minutes, the Director’s Cut is only about five minutes longer than the theatrical, so it probably won’t make much difference which version you see. Either way, you’re in for close to a three hour experience. So, get crackin’. You should probably pee before you start.
Random Anecdotes: Steve McQueen modeled his character Frank Bullitt after the main detective on the Zodiac case, Inspector Dave Toschi. This included the signature way he wore the shoulder holster for his gun. In a strange turn of events, McQueen modeled himself after a non-gentleman.
The Wikipedia entry for Toschi claims that George Lucas named Tosche station after him. Sometimes crazy people get through the Wiki filters.
An extremely mind-blowing fact: at one point during the premiere screening of Zodiac, Toschi (who was in attendance) was watching his movie counterpart (played by Ruffalo) sitting in the same theater watching Dirty Harry – a character also based on Toschi. That sound you hear is a seagull spontaneously combusting in Monaco.
Cinematic Soulmates: Se7en, Dirty Harry, All the President’s Men, The Black Dahlia