‘Zodiac’ *** (Movie Review) 030707

The Work = ***
‘Zodiac’ is the latest film from director David Fincher (‘Se7en’, ‘Fight Club’) and it is his first foray into the realm of the docu-drama. The epic feature ‘Zodiac’ has a mammoth run time (158 minutes) and looks to be as accurate as a film can be in portraying the events surrounding the Zodiac killer. Set primarily in the late 60s and 70s the film follows newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who becomes obsessed with the Zodiac killer. Graysmith (who wrote the book upon which the film is based) becomes so entangled with the case that it consumed his life and eventually starts to cost him his family and job. Based on sequences in the film and the strength of the actors I am recommending ‘Zodiac’ but to me the film seemed too long.

For those of you that do not know, the Zodiac killer was a serial killer that attacked people in the San Francisco area starting in the late 1960s. Part of what made the killer so frightening was his attacks would come seemingly at random. Not only that but the killer sent cryptic letters to newspapers often with puzzles and threats. The killer was so brazen that he literally taunted police in some of the letters. ***SPOILER WARNING SKIP THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH TO AVOID SPOILERS!*** Adding to the horror of the crimes is fact that the Zodiac killer has never been caught. To this day the case is unsolved despite a handful of witnesses to the killings and years of investigation. ***END OF SPOILERS.***

The trouble with the film ‘Zodiac’ is I think the material may have been served better in a dramatic documentary than a documentary-like drama. This starts to become clear early on in the film as Fincher and co’ use an odd narrative that plays like the film is jumping from case file to case file. The beginning of the film starts with a date stamp on the bottom of the screen and then each significant scene that follows has a similar stamp and the amount of time that has passed. For example: “April 1970 – Two weeks later.” The jumps have no coherent time span since different developments in the cases surrounding the Zodiac killer came at different intervals. One jump might be a day later, the next might be two months. The result is ‘Zodiac’ never builds any momentum (although individual scenes do) and because of the lengthy run time never stays exciting for too long.

Another problem is the central character of Graysmith. I realize he wrote the book and I realize he was around for much of the drama because he lived in San Francisco and worked at one of the newspapers that received letters from the Zodiac killer. However, the movie is called ‘Zodiac’, not ‘Graysmith’ and the focus seems odd at times. Really the last third of the film is where his story takes off as he becomes so entangled with the case while seemingly everyone else is willing to let it fade from memory. The first two-thirds of the film belong to Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). Instead of becoming wrapped up in the stories of Toschi and Avery the film jumps around from seeming case file to case file, switching between Graysmith, Toschi, Avery, and the Zodiac killer with his victims. Many scenes work but up until the last section of the film the story of Graysmith was far less interesting than any of the other story threads running through the film.

At this point it sounds like I am panning the film but I am not. Everything I wrote thus far is what I felt while watching ‘Zodiac’ and yet at the same time much of the film works. Fincher is a skilled director and the scenes with the Zodiac killer are often truly horrifying. This is all the more impressive as Fincher directs the sequences in a restrained manner. Also many of the scenes in the film work so well by themselves that they practically carry ‘Zodiac’ for the full run time. For instance, a scene where three detectives interview a suspect has the kind of tension that kept me riveted to the screen. Another scene that stood out was a humorous one showing just how difficult it was to share evidence amongst law enforcement departments in the seventies. The performances are uniformly strong and Downey Jr. is so good as Avery that he almost steals the film. The always reliable Brian Cox pops up in an amusing supporting role that underscores some of the dark humor running the through ‘Zodiac’.

In the end, I like scenes in the film and loved the performances. There is no questioning Fincher’s skill even if ‘Zodiac’ was too uneven to hold me through the lengthy run time. Critics seem to almost universally love the film so maybe it is just my problem that I couldn’t sit through the whole thing without losing interest at points in the film. The story of Graysmith was, I think, the biggest issue I had with the film. His story didn’t grab me until the last section of the film when his obsession propelled him on, trailing the Zodiac killer, when all others had let it go. There may be a similarity here to Fincher’s great film ‘Se7en’ in the way the characters get entangled in the crimes of a madman. Just following the case takes a real toll on those involved and simply to try and solve the case is to pay a price in one’s life. That is a theme running through both films and it is all the more impressive that Fincher was able to show what it has done to those in the real world just as it had to the characters in his previous film. Recommend but be aware of the lengthy run time.


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