3½ stars (out of four)
In 1978, in one of many letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, the man known as Zodiac wrote: "I am waiting for a good movie about me." A generation later, David Fincher has made it.
"Zodiac" is not the serial killer tale audiences expect in this torture-friendly, cold-cased era. To be sure, Fincher has been down this road before. In 1995 the director, trained in special effects and videos and the third "Alien" movie, broke through with "Se7en," the deadly-sins parade of gloom. That film's meticulous tableaux of gristle and murk, bleary-eyed Edward Norton's itchy paranoia in "Fight Club," the computer-generated keyhole shot in "Panic Room": With each new dread-and-wonder exercise Fincher knows what he wants and how to build a visual case for it. Up until now he has proven himself a first-rate callow filmmaker.
"Zodiac" is different, and better. It's fascinating and unexpected both in its simple, looming images and its storytelling priorities, which may not intersect with the priorities of audiences who couldn't get enough of "Se7en."
The script by James Vanderbilt requires Fincher to adapt his suspense proficiency to a real-life story, set in the years 1969 through the early '90s all over California. The film begins with a snakelike slither down the streets of Vallejo, Calif., on July 4, 1969, with sparklers glowing and the Three Dog Night version of "Easy to Be Hard" on the soundtrack. "How can people be so heartless? How can people be so cruel?" go the lyrics from the song from "Hair."
Fincher restates that question soon enough visually. The first murder on screen in "Zodiac," in which the hunter in his Mustang stalks a pair of sweethearts, is depicted in a few quick blasts after a sadistically prolonged build-up. It's excruciating yet detached. But the onscreen violence is confined to the first third of the picture, which separates this one from most films of its ilk.The man identifying himself as Zodiac killed somewhere between five and perhaps 50 people. He mailed elaborate ciphers to, among other media outlets, the Chronicle. The paper printed them, and suddenly it had the Sudoku craze of its day on its hands. Slowly, with threats being made against schoolchildren and random killings continuing in odd patterns, northern California became strung out on its own paranoia.
The Chronicle's editorial cartoonist at the time, Robert Graysmith, proved a whiz at decoding the cryptograms. (Vanderbilt based his screenplay on Graysmith's two Zodiac-themed books.) The killings--never solved, though the film implicates a particular, shrewdly acted supporting character--took over Graysmith's life. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the cartoonist turned amateur detective. Robert Downey Jr. portrays his partner in sleuthing, the dandified, chemically addled reporter Paul Avery. (Downey is wonderful in the role; Gyllenhaal we'll get to later.) "Zodiac" focuses also on homicide cop Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, never an actor begging to be noticed), an iconoclast who served as inspiration for "Bullitt" and, famously, "Dirty Harry," the most profitably vicious beneficiary of the real-life murders.
Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides shot "Zodiac" with high-definition video equipment and the pristine results (quite apart from the film's exacting but not self-conscious period re-creations) look like big, bright Kodachrome snapshots blown up without any loss of detail. There's an edge of black comedy to Fincher's imagery: His head-on, talking-heads compositions have a deadpan air to them, which is often extremely unsettling depending on the characters' proximity to serious trouble.
Downey excels as Avery, a casualty of his own appetites and self-stoked celebrity. Gyllenhaal, by contrast, is OK. He doesn't really suggest a man slipping, by degrees, into obsession; he starts out looking wide-eyed and innocent, and then becomes wide-eyed, innocent and a little stubbly. Also, he's not an actor who can rip through an expositional passage with ease. In "Zodiac," which runs slightly over two and a half hours and requires some patience, he has quite a few.
The film's other limitation is a larger one. What are Vanderbilt and Fincher saying about obsessions and how they worm their way into our psyches? Nothing new, really. "Zodiac" is best taken as one long, artfully sustained dying fall, without a sharp resolution. Yet the story resists a conventional ending: so many years, so many bodies, no capture. You have to respect a drama, even a shaggy one, that takes you down blind alleys without getting lost itself. And in scenes such as Graysmith's visit to the presumed killer's film-geek acquaintance (Charles Fleischer, as unsettling as you please), Fincher turns up the suspense like nobody's business. For the first time in a movie career dedicated to hunters and the hunted, Fincher confronts the notion that there is a fantasy-sicko realm and a real-life-sicko realm, and some stories demand a careful overlapping of the two.
In the paperback reissue of Graysmith's first "Zodiac" book, screenwriter Vanderbilt says of Fincher: "He wants to make the film that ends the serial killer genre." We can dream, anyway. It may well be Fincher's last one. But others surely will pick up the blood-spattered flag and carry on the tradition.
Directed by David Fincher; screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the books "Zodiac" and "Zodiac Unmasked" by Robert Graysmith; cinematography by Harris Savides; edited by Angus Wall; production design by Donald Graham Burt; music by David Shire; produced by Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer, James Vanderbilt and Cean Chaffin. A Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:36. MPAA rating: R (for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images).
Robert Graysmith - Jake Gyllenhaal
Dave Toschi - Mark Ruffalo
Paul Avery - Robert Downey Jr.
Bill Armstrong - Anthony Edwards
Melvin Belli - Brian Cox
Melanie - Chloe Sevigny
Arthur Leigh Allen - John Carroll Lynch