Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey JR.
Runtime: 158 min
David Fincher’s new movie, Zodiac, is one about obsession and deceit, displayed on many levels and driven through the director’s extreme attention to even the most minute detail.
One obsession is that played out by the characters, with the Zodiac killer based on a real assassin who sent a trail of letters and ciphers to Californian police in the late 60s and early 70s, and who to this day has not been identified. Inspector Toschi (Ruffalo), assigned to the case, is a smooth-talking policeman who could easily have been the inspiration behind TV cop David Starsky. Downey Jr. plays the tormented, extrovert sleuth Paul Avery so hauntingly that one wonders how much of the real man is peering through the performance.
The fresh-faced Gyllenhaal plays cartoonist Robert Graysmith, a puzzle enthusiast who finds himself dragged into the Zodiac mystery by his own curiosity, his desire to look the killer in the eye, almost destroying his life.
The movie initially moves at a fast pace – the first hour and a half quickly fast-forwards from a few hours to a few days. This keeps a high level of intensity, never boring the audience with the agonising process of solving the Zodiac’s clues, but keeping them tantalised as they are solved and their implications – the next step in the story, the next murder – become clear and ominous.
The direction is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, a masterclass in the thriller genre. Fincher plays with the audience and drives it to obsession, reflecting the characters’ reactions in the movie. Though never wildly confusing, none of the pieces of the puzzle Fincher offers ever seem to quite fit; there is always a sense of unease when trying to make sense of them in your mind. None of your murder film experiences will help as Fincher leads you down dark alleyways of doubt only to reveal that they are dead ends.
All the while, the study in the characters’ self-destruction over the Zodiac and his undecipherable missives is as sadly beautiful as it is ruggedly likeable from the start. By the end of the movie, however, the characters have become either hardened cynics or obsessive to the point of seeming pathetic.
Admittedly, Fincher is replicating the confusion and drama of the real case, still open 30 years on in some Californian counties, but it takes immense skill to weave a story this well, all the while immersing the audience in a completely believable and accurate 1970s setting. The attention to detail is amazing, simply listening to some of the radio broadcasts conveys just how accurate Fincher’s reconstruction is.
That accuracy, however, is ultimately the movie’s pitfall. In the zeal to depict all the facets of the case, Fincher stretches Zodiac out for far too long, even when one of his own characters asks Graysmith to just “let the case go”. The movie leaps through years and decades, killing the pace and the tension but, nonetheless, Zodiac gives no signs of letting go of the viewer’s mind.