There is a moment in one of the commentaries for Zodiac, David Fincher's 2007 investigation of the infamous Northern California killings of the 60's and 70's, where crime author James Ellory says: "What this movie asks you to do is engage interactively and think, and follow nuance, texture, and inflection in an investigation that does not lead to the next thing directly. It's why people who love this movie go back again and again, because they want to get intellectually engaged." I couldn't have said it better myself. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt spent months interviewing anyone even tangentially linked to the case, crafting a film with an attention to detail that is unparalleled. Those expecting a "based on a true story" rehash of Seven were sorely disappointed, but, as Ellroy said, those looking for intellectual engagement keep coming back, again and again.
Zodiac spans several decades, covering the period from the first reported murder to the publishing of Robert Graysmith's novel, on which the film is based. The killings are some of the most infamous in crime history. A man silently and anonymously kills several people in Northern California in the late 60's and early 70's, and sends letters to the San Francisco Chronicle to gain notoriety. The murders became an obsession for several people involved, including Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall), and the lead detective on the case, Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). As time passes, Zodiac continues to send letters, but all the leads come to naught. Yet the legend of the Zodiac continues to grow.
As screenwriter James Vanderbilt says in the special features, it's practically a law in Hollywood that you send serial killer scripts to David Fincher. After all, Seven is one of the quintessential crime thrillers of the 90's. In fact, hearing that Fincher would be doing Zodiac, I presumed it would be Seven as a true story. But Fincher is one of the few directors working today not interested in churning out what worked before, instead pushing himself to try something new and different. Zodiac is his most intricate work yet: Measured, deliberate, and complex. At over two and a half hours (this director's cut adding a few more minutes on top), Zodiac is Fincher's longest work, and thanks to its slow pace, it feels even longer. But its filled with so many interesting facts, lines, and quirks that those who aren't conditioned for a cut every three seconds will find the picture endlessly fascinating.
The cast is stupendous right down the line. Robert Downey Jr. makes a triumphant comeback from rehab as the often drunk but talented crime reporter Paul Avery. Downey plays up the theatrical aspects of the character, making him larger than life and charismatic, even when stewing in an alcoholic haze. Mark Ruffalo is as excellent as Downey in a role that is almost 180 degrees away. His performance as Toschi is very understated. At first, Toschi takes Zodiac as just any other case. But as the murders continued and little headway was made, he became slowly more obsessed. Ruffalo plays Toschi subtly. Even at his most obsessed, he's not the kind of cop we're used to seeing in films. He's at home, with his wife, doing his best to put Zodiac behind him. Anthony Edwards is an excellent foil as Toschi's partner.
Jake Gyllenhall is in a difficult position as Robert Graysmith. As David Fincher explained to the actor, Graysmith is essentially an extra for the first half of the film. As the investigation winds down, Graysmith begins his own search for the truth. At this point, he becomes the film's main character. Gyllenhall has to be unobtrusive but not uninteresting in the first half, and then has to win the audience's sympathies in the second. It's thankless work, but Gyllenhall is up to the task more often than not. Chloe Sevigny gets an even less attractive role as Graysmith's put-upon second wife, who eventually has to leave him due to his inability to think about anything but the Zodiac. And then we also get a host of excellent supporting performances from actors as diverse as Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, Philip Baker Hall, and more. It almost becomes a game of "name that semi-obscure actor whose face you recognize," but each one is so good that you'd wish they would work only with Fincher.
Zodiac isn't for everyone. It's not a thriller. It's not extravagant. It's not exploitative. But Fincher and Vanderbilt know their facts well enough to weave them together into an ultimately compelling narrative. And while the piece feels reserved at times (in both the writing and the direction), it's that clinical technique that makes the movie so interesting. It's almost daring you to become engaged despite itself, forcing the viewer to pay attention to what they're seeing instead of being lulled into acceptance. Zodiac isn't an easy film, but it's a rewarding one. Keep it coming, Mr. Fincher.
The HD DVD:
Paramount presents Zodiac in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, in an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. David Fincher shot almost the entire film Thomson Viper Filmstream camera, which is digital and shoots in 1080p. As such, the image is pristine, with incredible detail and clarity in every shot. Fincher spent a lot of time fiddling with the colors in post-production, creating a stylized golden hue that resembles Three Days of the Condor. Some other elements, such as Avery's clothes, are often accentuated, but for the most part, the film looks drab, and this transfer retains those elements that make it so visually distinct. An interesting side effect of shooting in HD is that video tends to have very deep focus, often allowing for the entire frame to be in focus all at once. Fincher uses this to let the audience choose what they're looking at. Half the time, I found myself studying background elements that had little to no bearing on the story, but were delightfully accurate to the period. Once again, this is just another way Fincher makes the audience pay closer attention, because he often doesn't highlight portions of the frame to say, "THIS is where you need to look." I was very impressed with this transfer, and kept finding new things in it every time I watched it.
Paramount offers a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix on Zodiac. In keeping with the low-key nature of the film, Fincher doesn't spice up the surround track with lots of directional effects, but rather presents things simply and up front. The period music gets the most use in the rears, which gives them an extra boost, as if they exist outside the events we're seeing. Dialogue is always clear. I never had any problem hearing what was being said, even with some of the speedier conversations that crop up (Vanderbilt relates a humorous anecdote in the commentary where Fincher said that the only way he'll get the whole shooting script on screen would be to have everyone speak very fast). Not the most active track, but an accurate depiction of what the creative team intended.
- Commentary by Director David Fincher: David Fincher provides another winning commentary for his latest film. He spends almost three hours discussing everything from the real killings, to his intentions, casting, production, and more. Always interesting, he sheds a lot of light into this unique picture.
- Commentary by Writer James Vanderbilt, Producer Brad Fischer, Author James Ellroy, and Actors Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal: An edited together track that is excellent nonetheless. The real treat is hearing Vanderbilt and Ellroy talking about the true case and adapting it to the screen, while marveling at the breadth of Fincher's vision. Downey and Gyllenhaal talk more about production and crack jokes, but they don't appear too often, making their comments more like comic relief than anything.
- Zodiac Deciphered: This documentary, just shy of a full hour, feels somewhat anemic compared to the film it's examining. While things go in roughly chronological order, starting with the development, there's too much missing for the feature to feel complete. For one thing, Fincher isn't interviewed at all. That's a pretty major omission, and a puzzling one, given that he was more than happy to provide a commentary. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt takes his place, appearing in almost every segment. Annoyingly, all the interviews here and on the rest of the disc are conducted against blank white backgrounds. This doesn't seem like a big deal, but it lacks personality and looks amateurish. That being said, there are some wonderful portions to the piece, such as seeing Mark Ruffalo next to the real Dave Toschi, or Fincher joking around with Gyllenhaal during insert shots. But given the amount of time the DVD producers were given to put together the special features, Zodiac Deciphered can't help but feel disappointing. It is, however, in high definition.
- The Visual Effects of Zodiac: While only fifteen minutes, this featurette delves right in to the complex but subtle visual effects used on the film. Fincher is no stranger to VFX, especially with some of the more ambitious shots in Fight Club and Panic Room. But he rarely pulls out any show stoppers for Zodiac, preferring to blend the effects in seamlessly. We get information on everything from city-wide shots to the CGI blood used in the murder sequence. Could have been longer, but this one makes every minute count. Also in high definition.
- Previsualization: Several scenes are shown in rough animatic form, and then compared against the final cut. In standard definition.
- This Is The Zodiac Speaking: What we don't learn about the film's production, we do about the real life events that inspired it. This documentary runs over an hour and a half, and contains interviews with almost everyone still alive that was involved at the time, including the two survivors of the Zodiac's attacks. The feature is extremely detailed, going over the smallest facts, and pointing out many of the inconsistencies between the various stories and reports. This, an extra feature on a movie, is actually better than most (or maybe all) documentaries on the Zodiac. Even the blank white backgrounds for the interviews work in its favor, giving the testimonies a raw power that commands your attention with their immediacy. In high definition.
- His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen: A 42-minute documentary on the person that many feel was the alter ego of Zodiac. Again, many people that knew Allen, as well as experts like Robert Graysmith, are all interviewed. This feature is more slanted than the other, although it doesn't outright point the finger at Allen as the movie does. Either way, there's a lot of great information to be found here. Again, this supplement is in high definition.
- Trailer: A trailer more suspenseful than the actual film is presented in 1080p.
Zodiac is the next step in David Fincher's evolution as an artist. This slow-paced and deliberate work holds a sea of riches to the attentive and thoughtful viewer. This HD DVD is far and away the best presentation of the movie available, with stunningly clear picture and faithfully reproduced sound. The set ports over all of the special features from the two-DVD set, including a pair of excellent commentaries. However, the HD DVD gets the nod for offering almost all of the supplements in high definition. While it's been mostly ignored in the current glut of self-congratulatory award ceremonies, Zodiac was one of the best films of 2007 and this stellar high definition presentation offers the chance to give it that repeat viewing it so greatly deserves. Highly Recommended.
Note: The images in this review are not representative of the image quality on the HD DVD.