Sprawling, almost fetishistic in its attention to detail and maddeningly ambiguous, maverick director David Fincher's period epic Zodiac is arguably his most maligned film, chiefly criticized for its deliberate pace, lack of narrative resolution and fanatical obsession with the minutiae of one of modern crime's great unsolved cases. Yet, for all that naysayers found wrong with it, I find that Zodiac exerts a peculiar hold -- I was glued to the screen for nearly all of its prodigious run time in the theater and eagerly sat through it again when the barebones DVD was released not long after its theatrical run in 2007. Of Fincher's idiosyncratic output, Zodiac is quite possibly one of his richest offerings, a multi-layered dissection of a complex and violent episode that consumed nearly everyone it touched.
As much about the crippling obsession that gripped those searching for the Zodiac killer that terrorized Northern California in the late Sixties and much of the Seventies as it is gruesome sequences of stylized terror, Fincher's film defies the conditioning foisted upon American audiences who flock to crime dramas (whether they be films or TV series) that promise pat resolutions and clearly defined good and evil. Zodiac disturbs and fascinates because it does not wrap up cleanly - there is no triumphant climax where our shades-of-grey heroes capture the ruthless murderer. The investigation, which spanned decades, never produced anything other than very suggestive evidence that a particular individual committed the brutal Zodiac killings; it remains an absorbing, harrowing and deeply unsettling tale of true crime.
Based on the novel by former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), Zodiac traces the investigation, as conducted by Detectives Dave Toschi (an astonishing Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). False hope and dead-end leads pile up as the two men struggle to connect the dots and end the Zodiac's surreal reign of terror. Graysmith, at first on the periphery of the proceedings, finds himself allied with fellow Chronicle writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) in an effort to piece together the sprawling puzzle. Years slip away and while the police and Graysmith come tantalizingly close to pinning the crimes on suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), the men can never deliver any damning evidence that unequivocally proves Allen's guilt.
Fincher, working from a dense, nimble James Vanderbilt screenplay (reportedly, Fincher, Vanderbilt and producer Brad Fischer spent nearly two years conducting an investigation of their own - essentially dusting off the case files and checking the facts all over again), manages to make all of the procedural elements feel vital and engaging. What could've been a very dull, dry and lifeless affair (think "Law & Order") is compelling and, at times, mesmerizing; it doesn't hurt that Fincher's knack for visually stimulating films is in full effect, although to his credit, the director doesn't overplay his hand. There are a few truly stunning sequences, but the flashy camerawork that marred Panic Room, for example, is scarce here. Ultimately, Zodiac is a satisfyingly frustrating experience, a film that defies convention and plays out with the messy urgency of real life. Murderers go free, questions go unanswered and closure fails to materialize - all bitter truths and ones that bubble just beneath the surface of this masterful work of art.
The director's cut (an ironic appellation considering Fincher's contract provided him with final cut) included here is 162 minutes long, four minutes longer than the 158-minute theatrical cut, which is not a part of this two-disc set. The restored scenes are brief, but necessary reinstatements: A roughly two-minute "blackout" sequence that illustrates the passage of time with soundbites from radio news stories of the era (the original idea - using musical cues - must've proven too costly) and a scene of Toschi, Armstrong and Captain Lee (Dermot Mulroney) negotiating a search warrant for Arthur Leigh Allen's trailer are now once again part of the narrative. The film's overall flow isn't radically altered from the theatrical cut and arguably, these new segments are so minor, one wonders why they were ever trimmed at all.
Fincher, always at the bleeding edge of film technology, captured this period piece on the VIPER HD cameras, which do an excellent job of rendering dark, moody set pieces and vivid, saturated colors. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is, to my eyes, virtually identical to the transfer found on the 2007 barebones edition of Zodiac; all of the faint motion blur and slight softness that was evident in that transfer is unchanged here. While the flaws are few and small, they do keep the image from being pristine.
The atmospheric Dolby Digital 5.1 track (the optional Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 track from the barebones disc has been dropped) has plenty to do here, as Fincher typically crams every corner of the soundscape with some interesting scrap of ambient noise, dialogue or score. Zodiac sounds unchanged from its previous DVD incarnation; rich, enveloping and free from defect, this is a solid aural representation. Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are on board as well.
Spread across two discs, this set delivers the long-awaited supplemental material (or, as the case cheekily reads, the "speshul features," overseen by producer David Prior) that was absent from the initial DVD release. It's a blend of true crime investigation and filmmaking insight that will please the film's fans. The packaging, while almost unbearably cool (it's a design that apes the Zodiac killer's letters to the San Francisco Chronicle) is hamstrung by being an ordinary keepcase. Oh, Paramount - why must you smother your good ideas? On the first disc, aside from the feature, Fincher sits for a solo commentary track that's on par with his appearances on the Fight Club and Seven discs; a bit intense, but deeply passionate and informative, this is essential stuff for fans not only of Fincher, but also Zodiac. The second commentary track is a bit more sprawling (participants include Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., producer Brad Fischer, screenwriter/producer James Vanderbilt and author James Ellroy; the actors were recorded together, while Vanderbilt, Fischer and Ellroy were recorded together) but just as fascinating, with the actors chatting amongst themselves while the trio dive quite deep into the source material, the project's genesis and theories about the killings. Taken together, it's an exceptional look behind the scenes of this compelling film.
The second disc is home to a plethora of worthwhile extras that further flesh out the exhaustive research conducted by Fincher and his team in preparation to film Zodiac. Split between "The Film" and "The Facts," these featurettes and documentaries cover a wide range of behind-the-scenes material as well as information about the case; the film-centric bonus features tend to be a bit redundant when combined with the dense commentary tracks. First up under the heading "The Film" is the seven-part doc "Zodiac Deciphered" (presented in anamorphic widescreen; playable separately or all together for an aggregate run time of 54 minutes, 13 seconds), which features interviews with the filmmakers and tends to repeat some information conveyed in the commentaries. The 15 minute, 19 second featurette "The Visual Effects of Zodiac" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) is followed by a trio of previsualizations for the Blue Rock Springs and Lake Berryessa sequences, along with shots of period San Francisco and the film's theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphic widescreen).
Contained beneath the heading "The Facts" is David Prior's four-part, feature-length doc "This is the Zodiac Speaking" (presented in anamorphic widescreen; playable separately or all together for an aggregate run time of one hour, 42 minutes) that features a wealth of expository information, as well as fresh interviews with a surprising array of people tied to the Zodiac case, including attack survivors. The 42 minute, 33 second doc "His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen (presented in anamorphic widescreen) is a chilling assemblage of remembrances from friends, acquaintances and investigating officers. Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are included on all supplements.
Zodiac is a satisfyingly frustrating experience, a film that defies convention and plays out with the messy urgency of real life. Murderers go free, questions go unanswered and closure fails to materialize - all bitter truths and ones that bubble just beneath the surface of this masterful work of art. Of director David Fincher's idiosyncratic output, Zodiac is quite possibly one of his richest offerings, a multi-layered dissection of a complex and violent episode that consumed nearly everyone it touched. This two-disc set delivers the long-awaited supplemental material (overseen by producer David Prior) that was absent from the initial DVD release. It's a blend of true crime investigation and filmmaking insight that will please the film's fans. A lock for DVD Talk Collectors Series status.