There are crime films and then there are TRUE crime films. Zodiac falls into the latter category. It’s based on California’s notorious Zodiac killings, in which the killer in question took great pride in giving clues by sending letters to the press. Yet still, the cops hit brick wall after brick wall in their pursuit. “The Zodiac” was never caught, leaving a trail of unresolved murders and a frustrated team of investigators, who were fixated on the case for decades.
This is more than a ‘whodunnit’, as it focuses on the police procedure and the nature of obsession. It draws attention to our basic compulsion for trying to solve puzzles. And who better to direct it than David Fincher? Considering his other films, like Gone Girl, Seven and Fight Club, are all psychological mind-benders, it’s the perfect match for Fincher. In Zodiac, the tone is more intricate, less trippy and there’s no attempt to pull the rug out from beneath us.
It’s a crime saga around one single event. Reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) covers the case when the San Franciso Chronicle are sent encrypted letters from the killer. Cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) wants to help but isn’t taken seriously by any of the editors on the newspaper, so he starts trying to solve the case by himself. He’s like that curious kid in class who’s always sniffing around, asking too many questions. Then there’s David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a greying, worn-out inspector who can’t wrap his head around the case since every piece of evidence seems to be coincidental.
It’s a great cast but you’ll have to be patient with the film’s approach. It’s all about the details. It interweaves the stories of three key characters, who are real people. So, this means it’s a slow-burner with cop conversations, arguments and various debates in the newspaper office about the meaning of the Zodiac messages.
What makes Zodiac so different from popcorn flicks, is that it just follows detective work. There are no shootouts, chase scenes or plot twists. It’s simply a look at the mindset of the people living during that time and I have to say it’s impressively accurate. For one thing, the real Robert Graysmith really did live and breathe the case for thirteen years straight. He was completely obsessed as shown through Gyllenhaal’s performance.
In the second half of the film, all the lights are on Gyllenhaal as he carries the story, which becomes agonisingly suspenseful. The reason being is that Graysmith is an everyman civilian. He’s unarmed and vulnerable, so we naturally feel very worried for his safety as he takes extreme risks to find the killer’s identity. Scenes, where he could potentially get himself killed, are some of the tensest I’ve seen.
It’s the never-ending pursuit of a mystery that make it so gripping. And the best thing is, we too feel Graysmith’s desperation to find the truth, and we emphasise with Tosci’s frustration over the lack of clear answers. From analyzing the case and chasing down leads, to the brutal killings, Zodiac is a different beast…
Actually, a modern classic might be a better description.
Zodiac takes time to digest, but once you’re in tune with the story, it delivers chilling, fixating drama in small doses. Its un-commercial style was its downfall at the box office (it wasn’t a big success), and I imagine its long-length annoyed some people. If you haven’t seen it, don’t let the fact that it’s not widely acknowledged put you off. Yes, you’ll need patience but it’s a fact-based thriller that’s more powerful than you expect.
Director: David Fincher
Writers: James Vanderbilt (screenplay), Robert Graysmith (book)
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Edwards, John Carroll Lynch, Bryan Cox, Chloe Sevigny
Distributor: Paramount, Warner Bros.
Run Time: 152 minutes.
Have you seen Zodiac? What are your thoughts on the film? Feel free to comment below!