Hey baby...Judge Brett Cullum wants to know what your sign is...but not in a creepy serial killer kinda way.
Robert Graysmith: I…I need to know who he is. I…I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it's him.
Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room, Seven) delivers one of the best films of 2007, and one that redefines how we see him as an artist as well as the serial killer drama as a genre. It demands to be watched by being lyrical, well acted, period perfect, and tight as a drum. Zodiac becomes an unexpected gem of a crime movie from a man who many thought was only a strong visualist with some great editors. Despite the inevitable director's cut that comes to retail shelves in 2008, here's the chance to catch the theatrical version of one of the most infamous unsolved mysteries of American history.
Facts of the Case
The film follows the frustrating trails left by a notorious serial killer in northern California that destroy three men obsessed with unveiling his identity. The Zodiac Killer was a criminal who never was caught, yet taunted the police and media with cryptic ciphers sent to papers in San Francisco. The Zodiac has gone down in history as the American Jack the Ripper. Nobody really knows how many victims the killer really claimed. Zodiac concentrates on a triumvirate of investigators: there's the police officer intent on cracking the case (Mark Ruffalo, 13 Going on 30), the crime beat reporter for a major newspaper (Robert Downey Jr. (Gothika), and an editorial cartoonist who loves puzzles (Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain). The story moves from sequences of violence to a more horrifying examination of what compulsion will do to a man and the people he loves. The case remains unsolved, but Zodiac does offer its theories on who the killer could have been. It's all based on research provided by the real life cartoonist Jake plays, best-selling Zodiac author Robert Graysmith.
The movie version of Robert Graysmith's book detailing the Zodiac killings has been in development for years. Screenwriter Shane Salerno (Armageddon) optioned the material when he was only nineteen years old, and has spent years working on a collaboration with the author. The project was derailed several times due to administration changes at Touchstone, but luckily it finally landed in the capable hands of David Fincher. The director brings an extreme attention to period detail, and showcases his ability to keep a sprawling narrative together for close to three hours. It's a monumental achievement that the film does so well with an old unsolved case, which could have proved to be pointless and merely stylish. When dealing with an unsolved case that extends from the late '60s to the early '90s you have to have a skillful storyteller who will make the journey compelling even though it is headed for a dead end. Fincher has all the tools he needs to accomplish this daunting mission.
The cast is one of the best ensembles of 2007. Jake Gyllenhaal gets top billing and the most to do as Robert Graysmith. He expands his range playing a meek nice guy who falls down a rabbit hole, and we see his life fall apart as he lets the darkness of the case consume him. Robert Downey Jr. is showcased as San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery who is already dark enough, but comes to think his cynicism is enough to catch a killer. Mark Ruffalo plays the down on his luck homicide cop Dave Toschi who will go too far to get his man. These three men anchor the film. In supporting roles you have Chloe Sevigny (The Brown Bunny), Anthony Edwards (ER), Brian Cox (Manhunter), Elias Koteas (Cronenberg's Crash), Dermot Mulroney (The Family Stone), Donal Logue (Blade), and John Carroll Lynch (The Drew Carey Show). Three actors play the Zodiac killer at different points in the movie to keep everyone off-guard. Charles Fleischer (the voice of Roger in Who Framed Roger Rabbit) gets the creepiest moment of the film in a terrifying cameo that shakes Graysmith to the core.
Fincher restrains his usual visual acrobatics and MTV-style editing (save for three flashy sequences for dramatic punctuation), and trades them in for a languid, lush film that sprawls in every direction. This is a slow burn movie, and viewers will have to be patient to get to the payoff. The intricacies of the case create dense layers, and some will find this exercise as frustrating as the real people hoping to solve the case. But that is the point here, and it is the brilliance of the film that it doesn't rely on cheap thrills or Hannibal Lecter theatrics. It's a creepy film though not a scary one, and the thrills are in watching the wheels turn slowly. Fincher has abandoned the mechanical tricks of his past features in favor of a fevered opera that goes on for three acts. The whole thing is far away from Seven, because here is a killer that is more adept at marketing murder than performing the act itself.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The transfer is solid enough to get a passing grade, but you'll notice flaws easily. It's hard to see what part of the murk was intentional, and what is coming from the authoring for home theatres. There's a yellow filter on everything to make it look aged, and Fincher and his cinematographer strive to create a celluloid experience similar to the '70s. Grain and murky black levels are intentional. What I did notice that was not part of the original plan were digital artifacts scattered here and there. Plaids give the picture fits, and they shimmer and distort at every turn. At about one hour and twenty-seven minutes a clumsy layer change disrupts a scene all too visibly. It's a mediocre effort that hopefully will be remastered when the double dip comes along. Sound is great though, and the soundtrack and directional effects add to the film nicely.
The true crime scene is Paramount's inevitable double dip for this feature, and it's even shamelessly plugged on the previews on the DVD itself. This disc only contains the theatrical cut with no frills, no embellishment, and no explanation. It's the definition of bare bones, and in 2008 a new extended director's cut will find release complete with multiple commentaries and documentaries exploring the real events that inspired this project. You'll have to acquire this edition to own the theatrical release version, and it runs at an appropriate length. But if you want anything more you'll have to demand it in an angry letter preferably written in a cryptic cipher language threatening the lives of Paramount employees that decide what goes on DVDs.
Zodiac is a David Fincher film unlike any we've seen before, and it reinvents the serial killer genre. Rather than relying on cheap gore and CGI, scary English actors doing Katharine Hepburn impersonations, or visual stunts with an out of control camera, we get a meditative journey into the frustrating real world where monsters roam free while our heroes scream inside for years on end. That seems more disconcerting than anything the mechanical thrillers could provide, and for this reason alone the film is a triumphant milestone.
Too bad the studio has enough hubris to telegraph the idea a double dip is inevitable with Zodiac. Paramount has slapped this edition of the film together without any extras and a middling transfer that only just gets the job done. They even have enough misguided ego to provide a preview of the more complete edition due in 2008 at the start of the previews section. It's a hard call to whether a purchase is mandated for this one. The theatrical cut is plenty long enough, and I actually believe an extended version will seem indulgent. This is the right choice to experience the story at a manageable length, but you won't get anything more after the credits roll. True fans will end up with both on their shelves, and those satisfied with a "movie only" edition shouldn't hesitate.
The film is guilty of making murder into a brilliant meditation. Yet the sentence should be served by the studio who will be confined to solitary to think about their audience for a while. They'll have to do the time the Zodiac never did.
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