Approaching David Fincher’s latest creation put an ache in the pit of my stomach. On one hand, I eagerly anticipate anything that he creates, and he has not disappointed my yet (yes, including Alien3). I avoided reading any full reviews, yet I found it impossible to avoid all discussion of the film, and the discussions I found seemed to be split between the extremes. One of the biggest factors seemed to be an excessive running time of 16o minutes (which I also read was cut down from the original cut which ran over three hours), another big one was that there was little action making it feel more A&E and less HBO. Well, my wanting to see this overrode any qualms I may have had, and I have to say that I am glad that I did.
Zodiac is marketed as a serial killer thriller, yet that is not quite right. It is based on the true story of a killer who dubbed himself the Zodiac, and killed an unknown number of people over a long period of time, during which he would send letters confessing to the crimes, along with ciphers, to the newspapers. Essentially giving the police the clues to come with arm’s reach of discovering him, yet far enough away that they never actually have a clue as to his true identity. Now I am going to say something that gives thought to what it may be like to be under siege such as the city of San Francisco was, and also the film’s biggest weakness. To live through something like this has to be absolutely terrifying, think about knowing that a killer is out there, brazen enough to tease those looking for him. The drawback in the film is that it never strays from those reporters and detectives who are working the case, we don’t get to the people and the fear that they had to have been feeling.
David Fincher has taken the serial killer film and put a different spin on it. This is not an action film about the detective hot on the trailer of the killer, nor is it about the star trying to avoid becoming the killer’s next victim. What it is, is an accomplished procedural that by all definition should be a dull and boring affair, yet this one is different. Many characters are juggled, the timeline covers decades, and no conclusion is ever reached. The last bit we already knew, as the Zodiac killings were never solved, with the SFPD declaring the case inactive in 2002.
There is amazing attention to detail. The bulk of the film takes place in the 1970′s, an era before computers were as ubiquitous as they are now, and investigative/reporting techniques were just a little bit different than they are now. We watch as the main players are sucked into the drama, consumed with finding the killer that is making fun of their efforts.
Being a procedural, and a complete stickler for details doesn’t allow for the visual kinetics that are something of a trademark in Fincher’s films. However, that does not mean that this is a bland looking film, this is Fincher doing mainstream, which is better than mainstream, there is still room for some visual flourishes, and even making a static shot of a conversation interesting to watch.
Carrying the film along its straight forward narrative are a trio of characters, whose stories weave together forming this tapestry through time. First up is Robert Downey Jr. as crime beat reporter Paul Avery, a cocky writer who finds himself personally threatened by the killer and becomes so obsessed with finding him that it costs him his job and drives him to the bottom of a bottle. Working in conjunction and parallel to Avery is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith (the man who wrote the novel upon which the film is based), a cartoonist and puzzle aficionado who becomes enamored with the ciphers, and, by default, the case. His life becomes consumed with finding the killer, he never lets it go, at the expense of his family. Lastly, there is the police detective who gets as close as humanly possible to solving the case. All of the performance’s are solid, with Downey Jr. nearly stealing all of his scenes.
Taking the runtime into consideration, I was amazed at how focused the story was. You would think that, with all of those minutes, you would expect some sidetracking. However, it never happens, the script remains squarely focused on the various angles of investigation. It is that focus that I believe helps those 160 minutes feel like much fewer. I was drawn in and engrossed in the story, fascinated by the personalities involved.
Bottomline. Despite the lack of outside touches, this is a movie that delivers the goods. It is an engrossing twist on the serial killer genre. It is highlighted by a tight script, effective editing, and good performances. This is another winner for David Fincher, and a fascinating turn into the way a life can be consumed with the search for the truth, and the procedures employed in that search, a personal procedural, if you will. Methodically paced, but never slow, despite the lack of gunfights, car chases, and explosions, creating a more intellectual journey.