Film Reviews

Zodiac David Fincher

Rating - 9/10

David Fincher has clearly outdone himself. Fight Club and Seven were two flawed, moody films that were filled with compelling moments but never really gelled. In Zodiac, despite the presence of several stellar actors, Fincher wisely lets the details take the starring role and comes up with his best film yet; and perhaps a classic of the crime procedural genre.

For those unfamiliar with the case, the Zodiac was the self-titled serial killer that taunted the police and the press in the San Francisco Bay in the late 60's and early 70's. He left very little physical evidence, sent bizarre coded letters that required intelligence and effort to compose but were ironically a morass of grammatical and spelling mistakes, and eventually he stopped sending letters, apparently stopped killing people, and was never caught. He was the model for the killer in the original Dirty Harry film and his cunning at escaping capture has formed the basis for the vast literature of the serial killer genre. Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the murders and played in the movie by Jake Gyllenhaal, became obsessed with the case and actually uncovered significant evidence in the case long after the police had given up. His book about the case formed the basis for the film, quite literally. Fincher's approach mirrors the style of the true crime paperbacks, which let us all play detective by laying out all the evidence as it develops. In the case of the Zodiac, the murderer was never caught and we are left with the kind of "Ripperology" that followed the famous Whitechapel murders, where suspects are layed out, and the pros and cons of each are debated endlessly.

In Zodiac, Fincher keeps us guessing for over two and half hours, no mean feat, by throwing facts, false leads, and astonishing coincidences at us in rapid succession. They keep coming right up until the end, a true twist I won't reveal, and the viewer is left as intrigued and overwhelmed as Graysmith himself. But Fincher does more. Never at a loss to attract quality actors, in Zodiac he coaxes excellent performances out of every member of his large, talented cast. Robert Downey Jr. stands out as a booze-addled reporter whose degeneration as the case progresses hits a little close to home. What a relief to see him back and in control, stealing every scene he is in. Mark Rufalo, in danger of falling into a Rom-Com abyss, shows us what got him here portraying the lead detective chasing killer down. His raspy voice, odd quirks and perpetual impatience leave an indelible mark. Gyllenhaal is fine as usual but he is simply outshone here by his costars, leaving the central character a little less defined than the supporting roles, though this is a minor complaint.

Further, Fincher packs his film with some unforgettable shots. One, following the taxi cab in which the Zodiac will take another victim, is filmed from directly above and when the cab makes a sharp right turn the effect is so jarring you find yourself shifting in your seat. A brutal stabbing scene is horrible to watch, but completely appropriate in the context of the film. Having read the book I admired how Fincher kept to the known facts about the murders and took few cinematic liberties where none were necessary.

Overall, Zodiac is quite an achievement, and is easily one of the best films of the young year. A crowning example of how to treat a true story that is remarkable enough without dramatic ornamentation, or the need to make some grand social, religious or political point. There's no need to attach the Zodiac to any grand themes by mythologizing - it actually happened.