Three men lose their lives to a serial killer
Using political cartoonist/investigator Robert 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 upclose 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 (Jake 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 Charles 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.
A one-disc release packed in a standard keepcase, the DVD features an atmospheric animated anamorphic widescreen main menu with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the special features. Audio options include English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, while subtitles are available in English and Spanish, along with closed captioning.
The audio keeps pace with the video, 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 feel, is strong and clear.
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