I can't believe I didn't mention the fantastic work by David Shire on the score, but maybe that's because it's so sparse and perfect for the film, that it melts into the background. Either way, it's brilliant, at one point establishing with just one note a sense of dread and danger.
Now that that's out of the way, here we go again:
Zodiac kind of sneaked up on me, as I hadn't heard much buzz about it, and I certainly hadn't heard that it was Fincher's return to the box office, following the stylish thriller Panic Room. As a big fan of the director's work, especially his visual style, and a fan of movies and books about serial killers, I was excited to see what Fincher would do with the story of the Zodiac. What I eventually saw wasn't at all what I expected, but was a welcome surprise from a director who obviously doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as an MTV-generation editing junkie, after establishing himself as the king of the MTV-generation editing junkies with his previous films.
Using political cartoonist/investigator Graysmith's books on the Zodiac killings as the foundation for the story, the film introduces the cryptic killer that terrorized California for years, but doesn't let you get close to him, using shadows and physical distance to maintain a separation, with the exception of the actually slayings, with are so up close it's upsetting. It's a distinct difference from the intimacy the audience shared with John Doe in Se7en, and appropriate for an unsolved crime wave. The film sticks to the truth, as reported by Graysmith, and doesn't create a heroic plot that in reality didn't occur. The Zodiac of the film is just as much a mystery as the Zodiac of history.
As a result of the lack of connection with the killer, the film gets to know his hunters well, including Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo.) Each man invests a great deal into discovering who the Zodiac is, way more than anyone should have, considering the progression of the case. Working together, but mainly on their own, they spend years chasing down every lead, and every time they seem to get close, they realize how far away they are. The effect the case has on their professional and private lives takes up the bulk of the second half of the movie, but it's no less intriguing than the killings in the beginning. The nitty-gritty of the investigation is as engrossing as the graphically depicted murders, with one scene, in which Graysmith simply visits a possible informant (played to horrifying perfection by Fleischer) being one of the most frightening in the entire film.
Though Gyllenhaal is the star of the show, and he does well as the ultimate boy scout, showing extreme enthusiasm for bringing the killer to justice, no one is as fantastic in this film as Downey, who is perfect as a drunken lout of a reporter, the epitome of the crime beat writer who does his work on the streets and in the gutter. The energy he brings to the film with his performance is invaluable, and he stands as a important contrast to Gyllenhaal's naive rookie. On the other end of the spectrum is Ruffalo, who plays his cop character with restraint and slow-burn intensity that makes his ongoing travails more personal and relateable. He's the most down-to-earth of the three, looking simply to do his duty and frustrated by an inability to finish the job. Between the three men, there's a complete portrait of obsession, which is the real story here.
Instead of taking the legendary tale of cat and mouse and applying his bag of visual tricks to it, Fincher created one of his most straightforward films, using his gift for detail to take audiences back to the days of the killings, going so far as to show the studio logos before the film in the style of the time. While the film is as stylish as Fincher's previous efforts, it's an understated style, and doesn't take away from what is his first period piece, injecting you directly into that time, in much the same way Se7en and Fight Club took you into those worlds. It's unlikely a film full of quick cuts and stunning computer imagery would have made sense in the analog '60s, and Fincher wisely realized that, focusing more on perfect compositions and atmospheric settings to further his art. There are several frames in Zodiac that could be hung next to Hopper's Nighthawks without any art enthusiast complaining.
The length of the film is one of the few possible negatives to be found in Zodiac, but it's not that it's an overdone mess. The story is simply too sprawling and too complex to be compacted into a clean 90 minutes. The sheer size of the film, and the many plot points and storylines may turn a few people off from the movie, and the fact that a resolution is impossible due to the case's unsolved nature doesn't help either. The film does attempt to point a finger at a few suspects, using the books' theories, and there's a bit of "closure" in the form of a coda, but overall, the film is about the journey, not the destination, much like it's not about the crimes but the investigation, and it's not about Fincher's signature style, but his most accomplished direction.
Released in the first eight days of 2008, the new release of Zodiac is an early contender for cover concept of the year, as the art recreates the envelope of a letter from the killer to the San Francisco Chronicle. Carried across the spine and right down to the title of the special-features section, it's absolutely brilliant and perfectly fits the film. The problem is, it's wrapped around a standard keepcase with two disc hubs, which completely destroys the effect of the art once you pick the box up. It shows the difference between a DVD studio like Criterion, who goes the distance, right down the packaging, and the big boys like Paramount.
The two-disc set has animated anamorphic widescreen menus that match the stylish screens on the first release, offering options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the special features. The French 5.1 track has been dropped from this release, leaving just an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track, while a French track has been added to the previous English and Spanish subtitles. English closed captioning remains available.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer on Zodiac looks to be the same as last time out, and remains really solid, capturing all the dirty colors of the urban '60s and delivering an image that's appropriately sharp (in other words stylistically soft) and loaded with detail. Due to a yellowish haze over much of the film (representing age?) you could never claim there's anything vivid about this DVD, but it definitely looks great, and there's not a bit of dirt or damage to be seen (as one would expect for a movie shot on high-definition video. Considering what a detail-hound Fincher is and the reputation of producer David Prior, it's hard to believe they would let a sub-par transfer be released once, no less twice, which makes me think this is how the film should look on DVD.
The audio also feels the same as before, and again, there's no complaints about that, as the Dolby Digital 5.1 track succeeds at both the in-your-face moments and the subtle atmospheric elements, to the point where you will find yourself turning your head to see where the phone's ringing or ducking a bullet. The dialogue comes across crisply and the soundtrack, which goes a long way towards establishing the film's atmosphere and time frame, is strong and clear, while Shire's score provides some heart-thumping bass that will get a leap out of you.
This DVD was up against it when a second-release was announced so close to the bare-bones first release, as expectations were already incredibly high thanks to the amazing sets produced for Fincher's previous films. But with Prior at the helm, why would anyone have any doubts? The bonus material kicks off with a pair of commentaries, which automatically starts you off with nearly six hours of extras. The first track, a solo chat by Fincher, is an adventure in detail, as he manages to fill almost three hours of time on his own, without repeating himself, suffering gaps of silence or falling on "Isn't he great?" comments. Though a bit subdued for most of the track, Fincher shares plenty of info from the production and notes from his research into the case, in essence retelling the whole story in as interesting a manner as the film.
The second track mixes a recording session by Gyllenhaal and Downey Jr. and a track by writer James Vanderbilt, producer Brad Fischer and crime author James Ellroy, who is on-hand to give his stamp of approval to the film as one of the greatest crime films ever. It's a bit difficult to separate out the voices, but there's a ton of background on the Zodiac case, intelligent thoughts about the concepts in the film and a lot of entertaining asides from Ellroy. The contributions from Gyllenhaal and Downey Jr., which are about their acting experiences on the film, are a bit sparse, but they are having a lot of fun. The most interesting aspect of these commentaries is the participants' personal thoughts on the case, and what they believe, following extensive research. They also point out the scenes added in for this cut.
The rest of the extras are split into two sections: The Film and The Facts, both powered by Prior, who establishes a visual style for the DVD extras with the participants sitting in front of a blank white background, directly addressing the camera. It works perfectly, as it feels like you're being spoken to personally. First up, in The Film, is "Zodiac Deciphered," a seven-part 54-minute documentary on the making of the film, mixing on-set footage with interviews with Graysmith, Fischer, Vanderbilt, costume designer Casey Storm, set decorator Vincent Zolfo and prop master Hope Parrish. The lack of involvement from Fincher and the actors is a bit of a black mark, but even without them, the piece feels comprehensive, and even has footage of Ruffalo meeting the real David Toschi on-set.
"The Visual Effects of Zodiac" is a 15-minute featurette on the large amount of special effects used in going back in time to the days of the killings. Interviews with Visual Effects Supervisors Eric Barba and Craig Barron (who somehow gets the name of the third Star Wars film wrong) back a large number of clips from the film, with the many in-between stages from the visual effects work shown. Anyone whose interested in digital manipulation will enjoy seeing how the many subtle effects were achieved, including the incredible job of creating the film's opening shot of the Port of San Francisco. The piece is beautifully constructed, utilizing split-screens and wipes to show the changes. It goes along with the three previsualizations of the big murder scenes, which show computer animated storyboards alongside the final film. It's interesting to see what Fincher's original concept was and the small changes made in production.
Wrapping up the film side of the extras is the great theatrical trailer.
The Facts is made up of two pieces, starting with This is the Zodiac Speaking, a four-part feature-length documentary on the killings, which runs 102 minutes. Directed by Prior, it carries the DVD's look and feel, and is as detailed and meticulous as the film, with the story of the Zodiac killer told by the police and civilians involved. It's an incredibly objective look at the case, letting the investigators, and two of the surviving victims, Mike Mageau and Bryan Hartnell, have their say, but it doesn't shy away from pointing out inconsistencies in their recollections, even directly questioning them about their actions. If the movie was too long or "boring" for you, avoid this piece, as it's 80% talking heads, but anyone with an attention span and an interest in the killings will be rewarded by a fascinating true-life story, supplemented by archival footage and animation that dynamically displays the settings of the attacks.
The other element is "His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen," a 42-minute documentary on the case's prime suspect, featuring Graysmith, a handful of investigators and experts, and several people who personally knew the man many felt was the Zodiac killer, and certainly weren't in love with him. Plenty of people who have watched Zodiac feel it points a finger at Allen (which is does, since that's what Graysmith's books do,) and this documentary isn't likely to change that opinion, as his own friends and acquaintances bury him with memories of an unusual man who could have been a killer, while the investigators talk about how he avoided the law. At the same time, it's not a crucifixion, leaving enough open questions and providing enough alternate viewpoints to leave the decision up to the viewer. It's a valuable look at the film's primary "villain," since the film's perspective didn't allow such an exploration into the man.
In a nice touch, all of the documentaries have English, French and Spanish subtitles available.
The Bottom Line
As time goes on, I feel Zodiac will only grow in stature in the eyes of cinephiles, much like Fincher's previous and similar The Game, and will one day be considered the preeminent film in Fincher's filmography (unless he somehow manages to top this epic movie.) It's the kind of film that rewards multiple viewings and shows what kind of disciplined filmmaker he can be, rather than just a visual wizard. It also shows what an incredible cast, fascinating story and attention to detail can do for a movie. Now available in a two-disc director's cut version, the film still looks and sounds wonderful, but this time, it's the in-depth special edition fans wanted and the film deserved, striking an excellent balance between an proper retrospective of the film and an expansion of the film's investigation into the real case of the Zodiac killer. Anyone who's a fan of serial killer stories or the psychology of obsession will find a lot to love in this movie, and the extras make it a complete and utterly engrossing experience with more original material than you're likely to find in 98 percent of the DVDs on the market. This is a must-own for true film fans and anyone into the drama of an investigation.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.