Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
With director David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button doing well in theaters, Paramount has reissued Zodiac in a fine new Blu-ray disc. Zodiac is one of the best pictures of 2007 and a jolt of adrenaline for the over-mined serial killer genre. Fincher is well known as the maker of Se7en, one of the better of a flood of pictures that followed in the wake of the Oscar-winner Silence of the Lambs. The concept of investigators using psychology, intuition, guesswork and spiritual voodoo to expose appalling mass murderers has been done to death, but Zodiac takes an entirely different tack. Based on the true story of the unsolved Zodiac killer case as written by a newspaper cartoonist who conducted a private investigation, Zodiac is a police procedural epic that spans twenty years. It breaks fresh ground on the nature of crime investigation. Human error, advice from unreliable experts, turf wars, interference from the press and just plain bad luck combine to keep the wheels of justice from arresting the guilty party. Concentrating on the human equation instead of the violent murders, Fincher's film is both fascinating and profound.
The Blu-ray edition of Zodiac contains all the extras of Paramount's 2-disc Director's Cut DVD.
Late in 1968, an unknown killer begins a reign of terror, first in Vallejo and then in San Francisco proper. Detectives David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) work hard to solve the case, but the random nature of the killings works against them, as does a lack of jurisdictional cooperation between police departments and interference from an ambitious reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.). The killer communicates his intentions in a series of boastful letters to the newspapers and the cops, resulting in a media blitz that puts too much pressure on the investigation. As the case drags on for years, cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), an associate of Avery's at the San Francisco Chronicle, becomes obsessed with the Zodiac and is convinced that the clues exist to find the killer. But when Graysmith goes public with his intentions, he begins receiving disturbing prank phone calls.
Zodiac is an engrossing examination of a 'recent' crime wave already slipping into the past. Many people have heard of The Zodiac but few remember specifics beyond the frightening threats of the grandstanding killer and the media fear-storm that surrounded the case. Famous attorney Melvin Belli got involved as well, drumming up self-serving publicity by speaking with the Zodiac (or someone calling himself the Zodiac) on television. Don Siegel made a highly influential movie from the case called Dirty Harry, a violent Clint Eastwood cop show that renamed its killer 'Scorpio' but gave him some of the same attributes, like talking to the press and threatening children in school buses. Scorpio tries to discredit Eastwood's Harry Callahan, something that the Zodiac did as well to the hard-working Detective Toschi. Toschi is yanked from the case when the Zodiac writes him directly. In an ironic scene, Zodiac shows Toschi disheartened by a screening of Dirty Harry, with its near-fascist call to junk the bill of rights so "cops can do their job". Toschi is frustrated by the inability to secure a search warrant against a key suspect but disapproves of Dirty Harry's vigilantism. Toschi still believes in the due process of law.
The experts later concur that the Zodiac was not a diabolical genius and eluded capture largely through blind luck. Zodiac goes through the history of the case year by year following a number of interesting protagonists. Mark Ruffalo's Dave Toschi likes animal crackers and even looks a bit like the TV detective Columbo. His partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) is dependable and dedicated. Unlike the cops in thriller movies, these men can only invest so much of their lives into the case. Faced by bureaucratic indifference, non-cooperation from other departments and other distractions, it's a wonder that more relevant clues weren't dropped. Toschi thinks he finds his man, but through no fault of his own spends years unable to nail him.
Zodiac devotes an equal amount of time to a pair of young newspapermen. The Chronicle cooperates fully but hotshot reporter Paul Avery is soon running his own sloppy investigation. Instead of reporting his findings to the cops, he promotes himself with newspaper scoops, jeopardizing ongoing investigations and seriously tripping up Toschi and Armstrong's efforts. Robert Graysmith follows every detail of the case. He eventually becomes obsessed with it, using an unofficial connection to Toschi to gather more clues. But it costs him his marriage and may threaten his life. Following up on leads the cops have already dismissed, Graysmith takes meetings with suspicious strangers, any one of whom might be setting a deadly trap.
Director David Fincher knows that the story doesn't need hyping, and after an opening explosion of violence sticks mainly to only those things experienced by his leading Zodiac hunters. The script by James Vanderbilt makes good use of narrative shorthand to update the lives of his characters as the years pass by. Graysmith's wife becomes impatient when he goes public with his quest, exposing his family to attack. But the movie never becomes a soap opera or a standard jeopardy thriller. The jeopardy has more of a nagging, mundane quality. Realizing that he may be a target for the Zodiac, the high-strung Paul Avery demands a gun permit. Soon the paper's entire editorial staff is wearing cynical buttons that read: "I'm not Paul Avery." Paul wears one too!
Zodiac doesn't settle for simple cynicism or a nihilistic viewpoint; this isn't a satire about urban dysfunction (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) or a slice of existential pessimism (The Laughing Policeman). As it turns out, the authorities already had, or had access to, information that could have solved the case within a few months. The reveal of incompetence in key places and incomplete gathering of facts points to reasons why bigger societal boondoggles occur. Every time he makes a move, Toschi must run a gauntlet of jurisdictional issues and "it's not my job" blather.
The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent in roles. Robert Downey Jr. is excellent as an understandable weasel while Jake Gyllenhaal has finally graduated from parts where he has to be 'innocent' and guileless. Brian Cox make a wonderfully pompous (but not exaggerated) Melvin Belli; the real Belli can be seen negotiating with the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter. Chloë Sevigny is Graysmith's gentle first date / girlfriend / concerned wife. Elias Koteas and Dermot Mulroney are other cop officials that Toschi must work with. Candy Clark has a tiny and almost unrecognizable bit part.
Paramount's Blu-ray of Zodiac bears a fine transfer of this mesmerizing, thinking-person's crime movie; the added HD resolution brings more out of the settings and makes close-ups seem more intimate. The sharp audio track is peppered with snippets of vintage pop music that nail the spirit of the time without resorting to clichés: we're shown a Haight-Ashbury signpost when a radio caller blames the killing spree on 'San Francisco Satanists.' This version carries the 162 minute version of the film, which adds five minutes to the theatrical cut. 1 The feature carries two commentaries, a solitary track by its director and a composite track with Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. Fincher is an interesting listen and the actors naturally speak to the specifics of their roles and filming experience.
The second disc is packed with long-form documentaries. The expected making-of piece uses video taken at every step of the process, even the initial visits to potential locations. Producers, the writer, and all the key production personnel participate, and the self-congratulatory praise is kept to a minimum. A keen interest in production minutiae helps if one wants to listen all the way through.
The main featurettes and docus are all mastered in HD. The visual effects extra is an unexpected surprise. It analyzes a number of shots that don't immediately announce their presence. Unable to film in San Francisco's NIMBY-fied Presidio Heights neighborhood, the CGI people generate the entire environment of a key murder scene with effects that are nigh undetectable. Two other shots are more ostentatious, but with good reason. A faux time-lapse simulation of the building of the Transamerica Pyramid is an improved version of an effect seen in the old George Pal The Time Machine. It perfectly expresses the fact that the case is dragging on so long that the city is growing up around it. Another 'impossible' down view on a fatal taxicab as it moves through nighttime streets is unusual enough to clue us that something extraordinary is going to happen. The radical down-view also restricts what we know about the cab --- our view of its driver and passenger are carefully limited. Both of these creative CGI shots are much more than decorative, and contribute to the fabric of the story being told.
The other two extras address the Zodiac case directly. David Prior's feature-length docu This is the Zodiac Speaking is a comprehensive study that includes interviews with actual investigators and surviving victims. For some viewers this will be of interest equal to the main feature. A sidebar extra on the main suspect in the case, Arthur Leigh Allen, collects interviews with people who knew him and the cops that came in contact with him. Armchair detectives will find it far more interesting than the hyped "true crime" exposé shows that proliferate on cable television -- all the witnesses now remember plenty of reasons to regard Allen with suspicion.
The packaging mimics The Zodiac's letters to the San Francisco Chronicle. After seeing the movie, every detail -- the childish handwriting, the double postage -- seems especially sinister.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Zodiac Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent subs in English, French and Spanish
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January16, 2007
1. Writer Andrew Fitzpatrick offers a concise rundown of the Director's Cut additions to Zodiac in a blog entry at his The Blood Spattered Scribe. He computes them at seven minutes.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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