Zodiac (2007) … a film about the most famous unsolved case ever
David Fincher and James Vanderbilt take a criminal case with a near mythic nature and make it into Zodiac in 2007. It is similar to All the President’s Men, but that doesn’t make it a political thriller, although both movies show a highly investigative nature, foregoing exposition and segments to explain a character’s background. I think Robert Downy Jr does a great job in this film and it mostly goes unrecognized because I think he didn’t have a good reputation at the time. If this movie were released today, considering the success of The Avengers and the Iron Man franchise, it would be a bigger hit.
Zodiac is atmospheric and moody, perhaps moreso than most thrillers or dramas. That element is also its biggest weakness, because it is really slow in parts, taking time to survey the landscape and play music while panning the camera down the streets to show the environment. Sometimes it is really tedious, but other times it leads to a suspenseful moment, which is great. The film does get overloaded with facts too, but All the President’s Men has that too and still succeeds anyway. It’s just not tight in places and I think that’s why it didn’t really succeed at the box office, mostly because people lose patience with a two hour thirty minute movie about something that’s ultimately unsolved anyway.
I mean, if I had to watch a god-damned procedural thriller, I guess I’d want to watch one about the Zodiac killer, the most fascinating criminal case in history. The creators did their homework on this one and it shows. They interviewed key witnesses and gave the film a realism that really gives everything an authentic feel, which made the character moments and the performances even better, like a piece of pie after a good dinner. Everybody loves pie.
Having the compulsion to solve this case drives Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, but it also drives the audience too. We want Graysmith to succeed and we want the police to catch the killer. The fact that we know the historical outcome is irrelevant, because the true drama comes in the journey, almost exactly the same point I made while writing about All the President’s Men. I would say Robert Redford does a better job, but Jake Gyllenhaal plays his role so humanly and so well that it’s like he could be your neighbor. And Robert Downey Jr as Paul Avery is so out there, it’s like he is your college roommate you were always complaining about. Both characters work well.
Anyway, I’m not going to go over the entire plot of a movie as long as this one, but I will point out some great moments. In those moments, Graysmith is merely a cartoonist, but he gets caught up in the unsolved and mysterious nature of the Zodiac crime right from the start. He ponders over some ciphers that the killer delivers to the San Francisco Chronicle, his workplace, and can’t get them out of his head. Meanwhile, the Zodiac kills his first series of victims.
This movie also features Mark Ruffalo before every single person on Earth saw him in The Avengers, as Bruce Banner aka The Hulk. He does a decent job, but I think his performance is just overshadowed by Downey and Gyllenhaal. Being a secondary character does that, I guess.
Each of the characters takes on one of the classic tropes, which I’m not sure about. This makes the movie fit the genre, but also a bit formulaic. That happens at first, but as the movie develops, the characters break from their mold. Graysmith becomes less clean cut, though Downey’s character becomes even more eccentric and not less. Ruffalo plays the logical cop and Anthony Edwards plays his off-beat partner, like you might expect, but Ruffalo plays his part with more and more edge as the movie goes on.
One of the first good scenes is toward the beginning of the movie, featuring a lawyer, whom the Zodiac has asked to talk to on television. As he calls in, the voice of the Zodiac is eerie and disturbing, and Melvin Belli played by Brian Cox, plays it cool. He is nervous and apprehensive until the show goes on the air, where Belli is calm even talking directly to the murderer. The film questions the legitimate identity of the caller though, so we’re left wondering if it really was Zodiac over the phone. The scene works well and illustrates the main theme of this movie: Who the hell is the Zodiac? We don’t even know when we speak to him.
The scenes between Gyllenhaal and Downey are good, scenes they duplicate later on in the movie. One after the other, these two characters experience the Zodiac case together, the two of them influencing each other. Graysmith intrigues Paul Avery with his intensity and Avery brings him back to Earth. As Graysmith obsesses over the Zodiac, it becomes amusing just how much he wants to solve the case and how much Avery wants it to go away, mostly because of his famous Zodiac article calling the killer names.
He remains anonymous, I wish to remain infamous
–Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery
The main suspect for the Zodiac killings is Arthur Leigh Allen. He is played by John Carroll Lynch, a smalltime actor I had never heard of before. Lynch plays the role straight, not like a supervillain or a wacko, but adds these little elements of psychosis that makes you question the man’s sanity. It is brilliant. Lynch uses pure dialogue to deliver this character to us, an intense delivery about where he’s been and what he’s done. The movie shows us that Allen was probably Zodiac, but he was not arrested because the evidence was all circumstantial. Graysmith is sure he is Zodiac.
One intense scene tops them all, in my opinion. Graysmith questions a theatre owner about movie posters, trying to find out who the man was that drew them, knowing that the handwriting matches the Zodiac. When Graysmith learns that it wasn’t an employee, but the theatre owner himself–the man right in front of him—, who drew the posters, the tension jumps about ten times. The whole scene is great and ends with Graysmith nervously trying to excuse himself from the interview.
Fincher’s style of directing is classic and works well with this genre. The movie is not choppy, and all of the angles are traditional. I think it’s the little details that make this movie work, the bits about The Most Dangerous Game, a famous short story, the environment, and obscure mixed drinks. I like this movie because it tugs the viewer along with Graysmith as he investigates like an obsessed fan, whose only reason for doing so is because no one else will. All in all, this movie is great, albeit probably not for everyone because of the length, but I’d watch it again if I wanted to revisit this very intriguing, historical police story.