Paramount // 2007 // 162 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // January 21st, 2008
"This is the Zodiac speaking..."
Zodiac was a sleeper when it was first released, garnering fantastic reviews but not necessarily bringing in the dough. One might chalk this up to the film's initial running time of 158 minutes, which seems like nothing for a historical war epic but is daunting for a procedural crime thriller. The film was soon released on DVD with little pomp and the promise of a double-dip to come.
Now, David Fincher has worked his DVD magic with a second release, a "director's cut," that is packed with a few extra minutes of footage and so much bonus content that other DVDs will wither in its presence.
Fincher's film is based on Robert Graysmith's books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, which chronicle the police investigation for the famed Zodiac killer. Graysmith (portrayed in the movie by Jake Gyllenhaal, Jarhead) was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the killings and slowly became engulfed in deciphering the mystery of Zodiac's identity. He works, often naggingly, alongside Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, Collateral) who spent over a decade trying to catch Zodiac. While new evidence was being examined as late as 2002, the case remains unsolved to this day.
Zodiac is a procedural crime epic that painstakingly re-creates the era(s) in which the serial killer, calling himself "Zodiac," terrorized the San Francisco Bay area. Director David Fincher, like the film's characters, becomes engrossed with detail and minutia, yet never compromises artistic vision or style. Zodiac is a coming-of-age directorial effort by Fincher, a mature film that breaks new ground in technological filmmaking and storytelling.
For some, Zodiac will be frustrating. It offers few conclusions after its almost-three-hour trek, and features a story structure devoid of any major arcs or acts. Rather than following the traditional methods of plot development, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt offer story "movements." These movements don't build to a climactic chase scene or a suspenseful trial, but rather lead to dead-ends, red herrings, and character development. Zodiac's story is a long slog through an investigation -- through the heartache and torture that these detectives and journalists endured -- and ends with a question mark. The characters are likeable, some even loveable, in their unending quest for justice. It doesn't hurt that Fincher has created a world so exact and realistic that you can't help but become more absorbed in the world of the Zodiac killer as the movie progresses.
In order to create this world, Fincher utilized some incredible technology. The film was shot using a state-of-the-art Thomson Viper Filmstream camera, which allows for filming in low-level lighting off limits for traditional film cameras. Fincher deftly integrates the images from this new camera with some stunning CGI work that is among the most impressive I've ever seen. It's impressive not because it's flashy like Transformers, but because it's subtle and oftentimes invisible. On first viewing, the film seems almost completely real, but as the special features in this set point out, there are times when almost none of it is. Some scenes are composited from multiple takes and filming locations, others are complete digital recreations of locales as they would have appeared back in 1970. The result is a gorgeous-looking movie that feels honest and realistic, unlike Fincher's use of CGI in past films (like the snaking camera effects in Panic Room or Fight Club).
Fancy cameras and spot-on CGI don't carry a movie (just ask George Lucas); and Zodiac wouldn't be nearly as good if it weren't for the perfect casting that fills all 162 minutes. Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Graysmith, not only looks like the guy, but plays the role exceedingly well; he manages a perfect balance of wide-eyed excitement and haunting desperation for just an ounce of closure. His mentor, of sorts, is Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery, who is played by an intimidatingly slick Robert Downey Jr. (Wonder Boys). While these two are investigating the crimes as civilians, two detectives act as foils and fellow obsessors: Mark Ruffalo as Inspector Toschi and Anthony Edwards (ER) as Inspector William Armstrong. About halfway through the movie enters infamous Hollywood tort lawyer Melvin Belli, played by Brian Cox (Deadwood), who tries to console Zodiac during an ill-fated television stunt. During the investigation, Graysmith meets and marries Melanie, played by Chloë Sevigny (Melinda and Melinda). Sevigny is restrained and frustrated as Graysmith's oft-forgotten wife and homemaker, and you can't help but feel empathy for the girl who got involved with Graysmith at a terribly distracted time in his life. Rounding out the pack of major players is the prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, played by John Carroll Lynch (you may remember him from The Drew Carey Show). Lynch plays Allen spot-on, as the over-eager suspect who always seems to be one step ahead of detectives. It's a perfect cast filled with top-notch performers and character actors who populate Fincher's world with interesting and realistic people.
While I may be all praise for this film, it's easy for me to understand why some would be frustrated with it. For one, there is no conclusive ending. I would hope that most people know that going in to it, otherwise the next three hours may be riddled with disappointment. Also, it's easy to become anxious throughout the story as detectives become caught in bureaucratic muck trying to obtain warrants and evidence. When I first saw this film I remember trying not to scream "Just arrest the guy!" as they interviewed Allen. I argue that those are exactly the sorts of emotions that you are supposed to feel while watching the movie; anxiety and frustration bring the viewer closer in relation to the detectives and journalists in the film. What Zodiac lacks in action, explosions, and excitement, it more than makes up for in depth, character development, and mood. If you can get past the running time, you'll wonder how it all went by so fast.
Because this film was created using cutting-edge digital cameras, the video quality is near-flawless. It has deep blacks and very rich, often monochromatic scenery. The bulk of the beautiful visuals can be attributed to daring cinematographer Harris Savides (he lit Scorsese's Hitchcock spoof The Key to Reserva). Adding to the film's unsettling mood, Fincher seems to have messed with the color slightly, giving many of the night sequences a greenish, ill feeling -- which says that all is not right in the paranoid land of '70s San Fran. The sound is also exceedingly brilliant in the film, with a very haunting score by David Shire. There is also a clever use of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," which I will now forever associate with this movie (not that I had anything to associate it to previously). The main difference between this release and the previous one is that this edition only has a 5.1 Surround track in English, whereas the old one had French as well. This extra language track was probably dropped in place of the two feature-length commentary tracks which now accompany the film.
This special "director's cut" edition of the film does feature an extra five minutes or so of footage, although you'll be hard-pressed to immediately tell where. Unlike other director's cuts, which can ruin or redeem a movie, Fincher's added cuts are subtle, minor bits that were just removed to speed things along. You'll find some extended musical transitions between decades and a few added lines. It's nothing to write home about, but if it means that we get all these extra features, then who cares!
The commentary tracks featured on the first disc are both informative and thorough. The first is David Fincher, by himself, in all his microscopically-detailed glory. He talks ad nauseam about how shots were constructed, the difficulties he faced during production, and the amounts of research he performed in order to tell the story properly. Fincher felt as if he needed to do this story justice and portray everything as accurately as possible, mainly because he grew up in the Bay area while Zodiac was making headlines. The second commentary track features Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr., producer Brad Fischer, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and guest speaker James Ellroy (author of L.A. Confidential). This track isn't as taut as Fincher's, but it also has five times as many people. It's more lighthearted, filled with anecdotes about filming and the acting process. Both are worth listening to, although they can sometimes overlap with the featurettes and documentaries found on the second disc.
The "speshul features" (as it's spelled by Zodiac) on the second disc are some of the most exhaustive I've seen in a while. Everything is divided in to two categories: the facts and the film. The major showpiece here is "This is the Zodiac Speaking," a 95-minute documentary by David Prior. The doc features extensive interviews with the real people featured in the movie along with detailed crime scene animatics and archival video. It's on par with something HBO or The History Channel might make and is unusually substantive for a DVD bonus feature. The other "fact" featurette is a 40-minute documentary, also by Prior, about the main suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen. It seems at first obvious that Allen is Zodiac, a claim that is the major thesis of Fincher's film and Graysmith's books, but as the documentary continues, things become unclear. Along with the real life detectives that interviewed Allen are some of his chums, and even a gangster that he wanted to work for. The lengths that they went to in creating a balanced look at Allen is much appreciated, although it becomes apparent that it's going to be very hard to draw any final conclusions about the guy.
"The Film" side has a number of features about the production process, including the hour-long making-of documentary, "Zodiac Deciphered." Starting at the beginning, this making-of covers almost every aspect of the film's creation right down to the costume design (which was modeled exactly after the original victim clothing). It's fascinating to learn just how technically advanced the movie is, even when you can't tell at first glance. It's also a nice back-up featurette if you don't feel like listening to all of the commentaries. "The Visual Effects of Zodiac" is another great, but brief, featurette about the different uses of CGI within the movie. The matte artists at work in Zodiac utilized both classic Hollywood techniques and cutting-edge technology to accurately recreate the 1970s, and create some camera maneuvers not possible (or practical) in real life. Finally, there is "Previsualization," which is a short split-screen demonstration of how accurate the film was with the animated storyboards that were created for it. It's a nice thought, but has next to no explanation accompanying it and ultimately feels like an afterthought.
This two-disc set comes in a standard DVD case that's made up to look like one of the letters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle. It's an inspired design, but unfortunately doesn't have any bells or whistles beyond that. If you look back at Fincher's other special releases (Seven, Fight Club, and the three-disc Panic Room), this packaging pales in comparison.
Objection! A director's obsessive attention to detail doesn't necessarily mean the movie is going to be wonderful. It's just like when a film adaptation of a novel tries to stay dead-on with its source: it becomes bogged down in the little stuff and never actually tells an accessible story. I swear I almost fell asleep during that five-minute scene where the cops argue about a warrant! Come on!
While this film may not be for the impatient, Zodiac is a sign that David Fincher has matured into a technical and artistic master behind the camera. I rank it as his best film thus far, and certainly one of the best of 2007. It's a fascinating character study about obsession, both with murder and with justice. It may not pack a lot of action, but it'll certainly keep you on the edge of your seat right up until the really tiny epilogue comes on the screen.
Unlike the case for the real Zodiac, there's more than enough evidence to convict Zodiac: 2-Disc Director's Cut of being guilty...of awesomeness!
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Discs: #94
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 162 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by David Fincher
* Commentary by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Fischer, James Vanderbilt, and James Ellroy
* "Zodiac Deciphered" Featurette
* "The Visual Effects of Zodiac" Featurette
* "Previsualization" Featurette
* "This is the Zodiac Speaking" Documentary
* "His Name was Arthur Leigh Allen" Featurette
* Official Site
* Original DVD Verdict Review