Paramount // 2007 // 162 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 27th, 2009
There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer.
"I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAN
KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUE ANAMAL OF ALL
TO KILL SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST THRILLING EXPERIENCE IT IS EVEN BETTER THAN
GETTING YOUR ROCKS OFF WITH A GIRL THE BEST PART OF IT IS THAE WHEN I DIE I WILL
BE REBORN IN PARADICE AND THEI HAVE KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES I WILL NOT GIVE
YOU MY NAME BECAUSE YOU WILL TRY TO SLOI DOWN OR ATOP MY COLLECTIOG OF SLAVES
FOR MY AFTERLIFE"
-- The first Zodiac cipher
From the winter of 1968 to the fall of 1969, the self-proclaimed Zodiac killer murdered at least five people (probably more) in a series of gun and knife attacks throughout California's Bay Area. The Zodiac cemented his fame as a serial killer by sending newspapers and the police a series of disturbing letters and ciphers taking credit for his crimes and taunting authorities. Director David Fincher's highly detailed and accurate film follows San Francisco Examiner political cartoonist (and future Zodiac author) Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain) and reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man), as well as San Francisco police detectives David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards, Top Gun) as they spend over a decade trying to uncover the Zodiac's identity. Chief among the suspects is one Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch, Fargo), but police jurisdictional conflicts and the absence of a smoking gun prevent Toschi and Armstrong from arresting him. Years later, when the Zodiac has gone mostly quiet, Graysmith puts aside work and family to pursue the investigation on his own. He must find out the identity of the Zodiac.
The story of the Zodiac murders isn't necessarily tailor-made for film adaptation. As serial killers go, the Zodiac didn't have that many victims (that we know of for certain). His crimes had none of the gory, macabre elements of those of Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, or Jeffrey Dahmer. He didn't have the weird magnetic presence and poetic insanity of Charles Manson. There's little sense in his crimes of the perverse sexual obsessions that drove Ted Bundy or Richard Speck. Instead, the Zodiac murdered his victims with a kind of clean, utilitarian efficiency, and penned poorly-written letters to the media and the authorities claiming credit and instilling fear in Bay Area residents (it was the letters, not the killings, that made him famous). Worst of all for a film adaptation, the Zodiac was never caught. How does one make a movie out of that?
None of these apparent obstacles stopped James Vanderbilt (Basic) from penning a screenplay (based largely on Robert Graysmith's book) that is absolutely compelling while hoisting a confident middle finger in the direction of every convention taught in Screenwriting 101 -- there is no three-act structure; three of the film's actors trade lead and supporting roles across the complex story's long running time; banal police bureaucracy is the basis of much of the drama; only three of the Zodiac's murders are depicted onscreen (and their depicted with a dearth of sensationalism); with the exception of one brief sequence, none of the lead characters is ever in danger; and the movie doesn't end in a car chase, shootout, or other violent take-down of the Zodiac.
None of these apparent deficiencies in the screenplay stopped director David Fincher (Fight Club) from constructing a two-hour-and-forty-two-minute procedural that is rigorously accurate, visually stunning, intelligent, provocative, and the best movie ever made about a serial killer. Yes, that's right: Zodiac is the best serial killer movie ever made. It is better than Fritz Lang's M; it is better than Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs; it is better than Fincher's own Se7en. The reason for the movie's greatness is Vanderbilt and Fincher's resolute determination to forgo nearly every convention of Hollywood crime films in favor of realism. Before I saw Zodiac, I never would have believed a cop's months-long effort to secure a search warrant or a newspaper editorial board's debate about the journalistic ethics of printing a letter from a murderer could make compelling cinema. In lieu of chilling suspense or action set pieces, Zodiac gives us a smart drama about real men working hard to prevent a real monster from killing real innocents. So far, it is Fincher's masterpiece.
Zodiac takes its bow on Blu-ray in a two-disc set that is essentially a souped up port of the Two-Disc Director's Cut DVD. Giving the feature a disc of its own ensured there was plenty of disc space for a top-notch transfer -- and top-notch it is. The Director's Cut DVD presented the movie in beautiful fashion, but the Blu-ray is exponentially superior in terms of depth and dimensionality. Zodiac was shot almost entirely on high definition digital video and it shows. Detail is superb throughout, colors are accurate, and black levels are rich and deep. Digital artifacts aren't the least bit problematic. Fincher eschews the bold, hyper-saturated colors that characterize many modern Hollywood productions in favor of a more subdued palate that approximates films of the late '60s and '70s. The transfer perfectly reproduces his stylistic choices.
Audio is presented in a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that showcases the ample dialogue and period music while also handling gunshots and other dynamic effects with aplomb.
In addition to the feature, Disc One contains two audio commentaries. The first is by David Fincher. He provides loads of production information, delivered in a casual, conversational style. The second is pieced together from one track by Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., and a separate recording session with producer Brad Fischer, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and crime writer (and fan of the film) James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential). The contributions of Gyllenhaal and Downey Jr. are minimal but that's okay because it gives Fischer and Vanderbilt time to delve into the details of the film's development and production. Ellroy is the real star of the track, though. He explains his deep admiration for the film with a wealth of observations and anecdotes from his time spent around real cops researching his novels. In Ellroy's estimation, crime films don't get more realistic than Zodiac. Plus, Ellroy is coarse, real, and absolutely hilarious (his disdain for the one typically Hollywood-esque sequence in the movie is funny and spot-on -- even though the scene came directly from Graysmith's book and wasn't a concession to the studio).
The rest of the supplements are on Disc Two. They're all presented in HD. Four featurettes and a feature-length documentary are split into two sections:
"Zodiac Deciphered" (54:15) is an in-depth making of documentary that follows the film from the screenwriting phase all the way through the production. It is indexed into seven chapters.
"The Visual Effects of Zodiac" (15:18) examines the subtle but dynamic use of digital effects to recreate northern California in the '60s and '70s as well as to augment the murder scenes with blood.
"Previsualization" presents side-by-side comparison of computer generated animatics and final shots from the film. It covers the Blue Rock Springs, Lake Berryessa, and San Francisco locations in the movie.
This is the Zodiac Speaking (102:18) is a feature-length documentary that examines the Zodiac case in depth by bringing together many of the real people involved. It's fascinating and it gives one a greater appreciation for the accuracy of Fincher's movie. The documentary is indexed into four chapters.
"His Name was Arthur Leigh Allen" (42:35) pulls together some of the interviewees from This is the Zodiac Speaking to take a closer look at the man Toschi and Graysmith are convinced was the Zodiac killer.
Disc Two also houses a theatrical trailer for the film.
Given my effusive praise, it should come as no surprise that Zodiac was my favorite movie of 2007. I'm pleased to report this Blu-ray does the film justice. Short of catching it in a theater, there's no better way to watch the greatest film of David Fincher's career (so far).
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 162 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer