David Fincher certainly knows how to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. He is a modern virtuoso of spinning a tense story, keeping many of his characters' activities in bars, back alleys and other settings devoid of light where cockroaches tend to congregate. Zodiac is Fincher's first film since 2002's Panic Room, and the first that tackles real life material.
Based on the Robert Graysmith books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked and adapted into a screenplay by James Vanderbilt (The Rundown), the film chronicles the events of the California based killer who chose the nickname in the late '60s and early '70s. While the film's events do not provide a complete physical timeline of all of the Zodiac killings (omitting the 1968 killings of David Faraday and Betty Jensen in Solano, California), Fincher wisely re-enacts the other killings, including the abduction of Kathleen Johns, who managed to escape. He chose the murders for which there were eyewitnesses or survivors, and Fincher's well-purported eye for detail helps to paint as complete a picture of each event as possible.
As far as effectively recounting factual events go, Zodiac is in the fortunate situation of having an audience where much of the public has forgotten or is unaware of the events that transpired. But they are certainly aware of Fincher's ability to keep an audience spellbound using imaginative camera angles and a keen sense of elevating the material using his polished eye in technique. As a boy growing up in California during this era, he was keenly aware of what was going on in his community and in others, and the fear that gripped them. So even though Fincher had that card in his back pocket, he eschewed that and made a film that discusses the murders without much emotion or prejudice, using the points of view of the California law enforcement and of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal, Jarhead), a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
The first half of the film's 162 minutes centers on the murders and investigation of them, and Graysmith appears on the periphery, slowly but surely working his way to striking a friendship with Chronicle writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr., Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), a weathered city beat writer who has connections to San Francisco detectives Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards, ER) and Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, Collateral), who actively investigate the murder of Paul Stine, a cabbie in the San Francisco area who the Zodiac murdered after separate killings in Vallejo and Solano. Toschi and Armstrong become the main focus as the investigation intensifies, to the point where a person of interest is discovered. When the evidence tying that person to the murders becomes more and more circumstantial, the investigation cools over the years.
Enter Graysmith. He has quietly accumulated a wealth of data about the investigation through the years and in the late '70s he begins his own investigation with the somewhat covert aid and direction of Toschi. Graysmith and his detective work become the focus of the last half of the film, but it's also a look into the obsession that overtakes him. His wife leaves him, his face and demeanor become darker and slightly skeletal, as he needs to learn Zodiac's identity. It's stated perfectly in the supplemental material on the disc that Graysmith might seem offended that this person would use drawings and codes to terrify people, as drawings are something that encompass Graysmith's livelihood, so he wants to protect it. Watching Gyllenhaal transform himself from quiet, lurking stranger to one who becomes more and more consumed by the evidence in the case is one of the better performances in a surprising career. While Downey's performance has earned praise, rightfully so for the most part, in reviewing it again, it seems to be a mix of a more eloquent Hunter Thompson, combined with Downey's awareness of how his life would have been had he not cleaned himself up in real life. I'm glad that his self-awareness got a chance to stand up and talk in his role, but Gyllenhaal is the one to watch.
As for Fincher, while there's not a lot of camera and visual effects trickery on the surface, the things he does manage to employ are quite effective and they also help show how the Bay Area looked in the period. Things like the Port of San Francisco were wholly generated shots, while other, less obvious things like the overhead shot of the cab going through the Presidio Heights were also done by the Digital Domain team. However the Washington and Cherry shot, which to a non-Californian like me looked really good, was actually a mix of soundstage work and background art, with the infamous street corner not being used at all. Fincher lets the murders and the procedural investigations surrounding them do most of the work, and they prove to be compelling storytelling.
A quick word as to this Director's Cut of the film, which is five minutes longer than the theatrical cut and standard definition DVD of 2007. While many of the changes are minor, there are a couple of scenes that help illustrate just how long the Zodiac hung out there, using a black screen and a series of news sound bites, and another of how difficult the investigation was, with Toschi and Armstrong outlining the evidence to a District Attorney for a search warrant of a possible suspect. These additional scenes might not be much, and if they weren't spotted by others in the other material on this set, I probably wouldn't have spotted them, but they do add to the film's overall tone. And at over two and a half hours, you rooted for closure, despite the nonexistence of one. To be kept on the edge of your seat for that long is a testament to how in tune is Fincher is with his craft.
The HD DVD:
So Fincher shot this entire film using digital cameras, meaning it was filmed and presumably edited in high definition. The 2.35:1 widescreen presentation is in 1080p, using the AVC/MPEG-4 codec and it's a thing of beauty. Blacks are deep and solid without any contrast issues to speak of, color reproduction is rich and accurate, and detail is razor sharp in the foreground and background (I could pick out the writing on a spice tin in Graysmith's house). As opposed to films like Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers, the visual effects/computer generated shots in Zodiac seem downright minimal, so for live action driven films, this is as good as it gets.
Compared to other Fincher films, there's not a lot of music or tub thumping bass to be heard here, everything for the most part is environmental. And the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 soundtrack is capable in that regard. There is a score, which does sound crisp, but the film is all about gradually bringing you in, and the subtle surround action is quite smart, and the rainstorms (of which there are a few) help in that immersive effect. And yes, there is even an occasion or two for your subwoofer to chime in every so often. File this soundtrack under "subtle and effective".
Where Ridley Scott has his Charles de Lauzirika, Fincher has his David Prior. The producer of such Fincher DVD gems as Fight Club and Se7en has given fans another comprehensive look at the director's work, starting with the packaging, which is designed to look like a Zodiac letter to the Chronicle, complete with the "Speshul Features" listed on the back of the case. Split over two discs, the first disc houses two commentaries. The first is with Fincher, who as usual provides quite a bit of detail to the production, including shot breakdowns, how personal it was for him, and what was fact and what was dramatic liberty. How much does Fincher's attention to detail pay off? He even had a discussion with an extra on what to say during a scene in the Chronicle newsroom, even though the extra probably wouldn't be recorded. While it would have been nice to have Fincher play off Downey and Gyllenhaal, this is still a decent track. And speaking of the two actors, they appear on the second commentary with Vanderbilt, producer James Fischer and James Ellroy, writer of L.A. Confidential and other crime novels. This track is obviously more jovial, as everyone involved with the film discuss how they got involved in it exactly, along with spotting some deleted scenes and the visual effects sequences. Gyllenhaal provides some interesting material, such as the scene with him and Charles Fleischer (which Francis Rizzo praises in his recent review of the standard definition two disc set) worked because he went to school with Fleischer's daughter. Or that Graysmith and Toschi still meet periodically to this day to discuss anything new in the case. It's certainly entertaining and interesting, but by no means is it essential.
Disc Two is broken into two sections titled "The Film" and "The Facts", and almost all the material is in high definition. "The Facts" has two main extras, but they are big ones. "This is the Zodiac Speaking" is a one hour, forty-two minute look at the four crime scenes that are confirmed Zodiac murders, with interviews from the surviving police officers and detectives, save for Toschi and Armstrong. They include the occasional crime scene and morgue photo, along with overhead, three dimensional maps of the locations and dated photos of how the locations looked at the time. Where it's available, news footage is included, but the most fascinating interviews are with Mike Mageau (who survived the Blue Rock Springs attack) and Bryan Hartnell (who survived the Lake Berryessa attack). Their recollections are compelling, particularly in waiting for extended periods of time to find help. Hartnell even views the door of the car he was driving the day of the attack for the first time, the one that Zodiac wrote on. There are even some new revelations in this piece, such as Cecelia Shepard (who died at Lake Berryessa) saw the killer before he put his hood on over his face, along with some sniping between some of the retired San Francisco police, but overall this is an excellent look at the murders. "His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen" is a forty-two minute examination of Allen, the main person of interest in the killings, with loads of evidence and photographs, along with interviews of those who think he's the one, and his friends who think he's being unjustly accused. It's pretty convincing when you see friends discuss things Allen said or did, then you cut to a confirmed Zodiac incident. It's another solid piece.
"The Film" section's main supplement is "This is the Zodiac Speaking", a seven-part look at the film's production that lasts about an hour. Some of the material in this piece is redundant from the producers' commentary, though to see Fincher pick out the exact spot of the crime scene at Lake Berryessa, even as the investigators who worked the case are there, is yet another testament to his detail. There is minimal participation by the cast, which might detract those from liking this piece, but since we're talking about what happened in the film, not who appeared in it, it's a forgivable sin and another excellent piece from Prior. Moving on, the film's visual effects are covered with interviews from the Digital Domain team and some shot breakdowns with the before and after passes of key scenes where visual effects were present. The previsualization footage of the murders is the next extra, and the only one to appear in standard definition, showing comparisons of the previs footage versus the completed product. The film's trailer, in high definition and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround no less, completes the extras.
Before I forget, one other thing I do want to mention about the supplements, which is that Prior has shot the interview subjects similar to how documentary filmmaker Errol Morris does with his subjects, where the viewer gets to watch as the subject looks straight into the camera as they discuss what happened on a particular event. It keeps your attention, whether your like it or not, and as I said before, works particularly well when Mageau and Hartnell discuss their ordeals.
This release of Zodiac makes me sad. Why you ask? Well, with this being released in the first full week of 2008, many people will forget this at the end of the year when it comes to compiling their Top 10 lists, but this one should be the measuring stick for all other discs to follow, regardless of whether it's in high or standard definition. The two-disc edition of Zodiac is phenomenal, replete with exhaustive and detailed extras on the theatrical and actual events. The technical qualities of the disc are just as top notch. If you like Fincher or the film, add this to your collection and/or double dip appropriately.