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One of the most subdued thrillers ever made.

DVD Review: Zodiac – The Director’s Cut (Two-Disc Special Collector’s Edition)

Written by El Conquistadorko

It all started in Novato, a working class suburb of San Francisco, on July 4, 1969. Two teenagers, Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau, are making out in their car at a lover's lane cul de sac, when a car speeds along the road towards them. Ferrin has a jealous ex-boyfriend, and she's convinced he's been following her around. The car pulls up and idles menacingly ten feet away, its headlights blinding the couple. Then it speeds away. And then the car returns, a man of average height and build jumps out, walks calmly toward Ferrin and Mageau, and starts shooting.

Ferrin died of her injuries but miraculously Mageau survived. Ferrin's supposed boyfriend had nothing to do with the murder; there's no indication he even existed. But a few days later, a letter arrives at the San Francisco Chronicle from the killer, who calls himself Zodiac. Thus begins a crime spree that left five known victims dead and which, along with the Manson family and Altamont, became part of California's dark departure from the halcyon 1960s and inspired the fictional serial killer depicted in Dirty Harry. Part of the public fascination with Zodiac is that he left an elaborate web of coded clues to his identity. The other part, of course, is that nobody ever completely cracked the code and caught the guy.

It doesn't ruin the enjoyment of watching Zodiac to know all this from the get-go. In fact, the lack of resolution in this film is exactly what makes it so intriguing and terrifying. Director David Finch's masterful storytelling propels what in many ways is one of the most subdued thrillers ever made, a film where the actual murders, which occur on screen are often less creepy than the scenes where the police and reporters interview suspects who turn out to be innocent.

Zodiac isn't a short film, but unlike Munich, for example, where the cat and mouse game between Israeli commandos and PLO terrorists seems to grind on as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict itself, the film's pacing only grows in intensity as the cops seem to close in on the culprit only to realize they're no closer to finding the killer than when they started. These blind alleys and near-misses are exactly what makes the film so suspenseful and realistic. In fact, as the Director's cut reveals, every detail in the film is based on fact.

The two-disc set comes complete with a feature-length documentary, “Deciphering Zodiac,” that includes exclusive interviews with witnesses, police and even two Zodiac victims who managed to survive their encounters with the killer. There's also a feature, “His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen,” that profiles David Leigh Allen, and at the end of the film, despite knowing police could never link him to the crime and in fact established he couldn't have been the killer, you still feel like he was involved.

In the film itself, there's one scene toward the end where a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who helped crack the Zodiac's legendarily bizarre coded messages, which were sent to both the newspaper and police, confronts suspect David Leigh Allen long after police have closed the case and ruled Allen out as a suspect. Allen, played by the normally benign seeming John Carroll Lynch (most recognizable as the wooden duck-painting Norm Gunderson in Fargo), knows that Gyllenhaal's character believes he's the Zodiac and Gyllenhaal's character knows he knows. No words are exchanged, but the scene deserves to be celebrated as one of the most intimately disturbing conversations ever put on film.

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS

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