March, 2007, Mystery

It’s Independence Day, 1968 in suburban Southern California. A brutal lover’s lane shooting leaves a young woman dead and her boyfriend seriously wounded. Life may sometimes fools us by imitating art, but that inversion rarely applies to cinematic murder mysteries, especially those based on real cases. Yet A-list director David Fincher, (Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room) does just that in this examination of the infamous serial killer who used the film’s title as his tagline while haunting San Francisco in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Taunting the police with letters and word puzzles printed at his insistence in the city’s local papers, the killer compiled a string of grisly murders which remain arguably solved, but still tantalizingly unproven.

 Working from two bestsellers on the subject by Robert Graysmith, Fincher, screenwriter James Vanderbilt and his three stars, (Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo & Robert Downey Jr.) fashion an engrossing - - and meticulously detailed - - examination of the case and the unusual combination of policemen and journalists who labored so frustratingly on it. A model of linear exposition, Zodiac’s tale of multiple jurisdictions, conflicting descriptions, missing witnesses, creepy suspects and public hysteria makes for compelling viewing. 

Fincher depicts the initial crime, (with chilling intensity) in the film’s opening scenes and abruptly cuts to an apparently unrelated murder in San Francisco which produces a letter to the editor of The San Francisco Chronicle taking responsibility for that city’s latest killing along with the earlier one. More murders follow, accompanied by further letters which threaten the city’s children and generate an audience with famed tort lawyer Melvin Belli. Paul Avery, (Downey) The Chronicle’s crime beat reporter, senses a career-making story while Graysmith, (Gyllenhaal) the paper’s nebbish cartoonist, hounds Avery throughout an investigation which The Chronicle conducts in parallel to that of the police. 

Despite the eventual emergence of a likely suspect, the massive investigation headed by detectives David Toschi, (Ruffalo) and William Armstrong, (Anthony Edwards), generates no arrests. Then as inexplicably as they began, the murders stop. For a time, so do the letters - - only to begin again, years later.

By the time they reappear, Toschi’s set the official investigation aside to focus on more current crimes while Avery’s self-aggrandizing coverage has followed him into drug and alcohol-induced obscurity at The Sacramento Bee. Only Graysmith soldiers on, compiling files on the various crimes Zodiac took credit for and hounding the police departments of the various jurisdictions involved in his increasingly agitated attempt to unmask the killer. By dint of a determination bordering on outright obsession, Graysmith manages to connect minute pieces of data from the now ancient police files which permit the authorities to track down a man wounded in the initial attack, who promptly identifies an earlier “person of interest”.

The film’s ending credits demonstrate the old cliché that truth really is stranger than fiction.

Ruffalo provides a wonderfully detailed portrait of a harried but genuinely dedicated cop whose assistance is crucial to Graysmith’s incessant digging, while Downey dissects Avery’s egotistical, quicksilver, personna with a breathtaking self-absorption that’s sure to garner an Oscar nomination. But it’s Gyllenhall’s blandly dogged Graysmith that really carries this painstakingly-detailed story to its successful completion; employing a timid and self-effacing manner, the actor conveys a mixture of social awkwardness and obdurate determination in a role that could easily have worn thin in less accomplished hands, given the movie’s 2 and ½ hour running time.

Over the past two decades, much has been made of the lighting techniques employed in the” film noir” crime movies of the 30’s and 40’s. But cinematographer Harris Savides, (Elephant) demonstrates here that shadows and half-light can be just as effective when deployed in the service of the softly burnished color palate he employs; Zodiac begins in the fuzzy light of a hazily-warm early summer evening then grows progressively darker and less distinguishable as a faceless killer destroys his victims and humiliates his pursuers.

The verdict? While it may lack the pulse-pounding momentum of other successful entries in this genre, this coolly dispassionate examination of the havoc generated by a single demented murderer stands as the best Hollywood crime film since L.A. Confidential.       

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