Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, with Brian Cox, Charles Fleischer, Elias Koteas and John Caroll Lynch.
A notorious serial killer known only as “The Zodiac” is on a creepy spree in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s left several victims in his wake and taunts police of his motives with letters and ciphers mailed to newspapers. It’s only when crossword freak cartoonist Robert Greysmith accidentally cracks the Zodiac’s code that both the media and the police gets a lead. However, following the lesson of history, the case still remains one of San Francisco’s most infamous unsolved crimes.
Let’s, you and I, talk about fear.
Okay, that line there is one of my favorites in the entire English language. I boosted it, not surprisingly, from an intro to one of Stephen King’s books. But still, let’s talk about fear, you and I. I’m not really talking about the fear of the unknown, although that’s a popular one and one of the most basal. I’m talking about the fear of being hunted. Like prey. Like you’re being followed. That liquid, paranoid panic you get at the base of your stomach. That you are one of a millions other souls our there that could, under the proper circumstances, end up no less that someone’s trophy. That eerie obsessed feeling, where the fight, flight or faint instinct should kick in at any moment. You want to hide, but there’s no place to go. You want to run, but you’re in the crosshairs. You are being watched, prodded, toyed with. Hunted. You are made to feel a victim of some fate breathing down your neck, almost literally. Haunted. The slight, breathless pants on your shoulder of a person or persons unknown that want to get you. Harm you. Even kill you.
For no apparent reason at all. You’re just prey. Game.
That’s what San Franciscans must’ve felt like back in the 1960’s when some hunter of men took to task terrorizing the Bay Area with the bizarre, groundless and still unsolved murders as the Zodiac killer. Part documentary, part psychological thriller, part one man’s obsession, Zodiac is David Fincher at the top of his game, carefully and quietly ratcheting up the dread level over two plus worthwhile hours.
It’s unfortunate that this film fell into the bracket of “poor box office” tallies.
Zodiac may have fallen victim to the “too intellectual” tag, or the long running time turned people away (seems most audiences have only enough of a fluid attention span to fill a thimble), or how the film moves at its own languid pace, possibly inviting boredom in some. I don’t know. Just conjecture. One thing this guy is sure of: Zodiac is a great, thrilling and sometimes rather scary film…
July 4th. Vallejo, California. A pair of teens out for an evening drive. Any casual audience member with a fleeting notion about the film’s source material knows that these two are the harbingers of doom for the next few hours, the Maguffins for the Zodiac’s being. The movies wastes precious little time in setting the stage for the overall atmosphere of the film: dread. Paranoia and dread. The drive-by that mushrooms into a murder scene (played against the trippy tones of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”) sets the stakes. We’re against the wall with a murderer on the loose. And we’re all helpless fools for it…
Dread is the watchword of this film. Not terror, per se, and definitely not serial killer horror like, say, The Silence of the Lambs. But dread. That looming fear of something horrible that could happen if you would let your guard down. Epitomizing this feeling is Robert Graysmith, portrayed by Gyllenhaal, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and avid puzzle wonk. Graysmith is the unlikely protagonist of this story (and also the real-life counterpart who wrote the book upon which the film is based), more or less tumbling over the Zodiac’s intentions by the anonymous threat letters that get mailed to the paper declaring the killer’s motives, intentions and nary a whit of his identity. Gyllenhaal plays skittish very well, like a kid on the outside of the club. That haunted look hangs on his face, exemplifying that dread as we the audience are meant to feel. As was said, Graysmith is puzzle geek, and when the Zodiac sends cryptic ciphers along with his threatening letters, the challenge of cracking the code becomes an obsession.
Greysmith’s aide-de-camp in this escapade is crime beat reporter, the effete and boozy Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr., in a role that somehow mirrors the character of Tony Stark he would portray a year later in 2008’s Iron Man). Cynical, crass and opportunistic, Avery plays the perfect foil to Graysmith’s boy scout like demeanor. Somehow they trade barbs with each other over the Zodiac’s motives and identity with each accompanying letter, as well as when the body count starts to rise. All of Zodiac’s intensions are posted to the Chronicle’s editors, leaving our intrepid newsies at the frontline of what the killer might do next.
Of course, all Avery and Graysmith can do is speculate and play around with screwy codices. On the frontline is Det. Dave Toschi, portrayed gamely by future Hulk Mark Ruffalo. He and his partner, Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are the cops that get the call about a murder of a cabbie in downtown San Fran, connecting it with the Zodiac killings. Ruffalo’s performance of Toschi is just great, unlike the wary wounded Graysmith, Ruffalo is the warm and steady straight man caught up in the mystery, just trying to do his job to nab the criminal at large. Ruffalo has the feeling of stability you need in this dreadful business in hopes that there will be an end to this mystery, even though the Zodiac case is still unsolved to this day.
Zodiac starts as a crime drama, and ends as a docudrama. The first act’s pacing feels a bit rushed, but it flows. For a crime investigation film, the pace has to be swift, but there’s a lot, a lot of info that needs to be core dumped on the audience to get what the hell is happening, and there’s a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it velocity that zips by in the first act. Fincher’s films are almost always clinical pieces of technical exactness, and Zodiac is no exception. It has all the hallmarks of a Fincher film, from the muted color scheme to the surgical precision of the camera work. It makes for an excellent documentary film, as if cut for a PBS production, but with excellent acting and a bigger budget.
The core trio of actors all play well off each other, which is surprising considering how different each one’s personality is. Graysmith’s boy scout to Avery’s rake to Toschi’s procedural give the audience a united front of cracking the code of the Zodiac, so to speak. Each actor has his place in handling the mystery, and although it’s ostensibly Gyllenhaal’s show, Ruffalo’s treatment of the film is what kept me engaged.
Not to dismiss Gyllenhaal. He’s just so great in this. He brings that haunted innocence he used so well in Donnie Darko to the fore here. As Graysmith, he becomes so obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac that he loses almost everything he holds dear, from his job to his family. He becomes his own pawn in the Zodiac’s game, almost to the point that Toschi seems to let Graysmith do his dirty work. Let the crazed kid hunt the identity of the hunter. The case dragged on for years with nary a break until it was all but swept under the rug. Graysmith’s crusade, Gyllenhaal’s obsession is what pushes the movie forward. The game.
The prey comment I made earlier may be the crux of the whole Zodiac m.o., both as crime and film. From what little I know about profiling serial killers, they all take some trophy, some winning from their prey. The Zodiac’s was the game. The toying with – hunting – other humans. Sport. The cryptic letters and ciphers. Game. Thumbing his nose at the authorities, taunting them, daring them to try and stop him. The short story “The Most Dangerous Game” is commented on often in the film, and is used as an analog for the killer’s motives. A key scene, and maybe the best in the movie, is the interview between Toschi and Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen has the history and hallmarks of a hunter, and dearly enjoys messing with the officer’s heads. Poking holes and creating new ones in the fabric of their investigation. This scene may be the lynchpin of the whole movie, if not the case at large. The play was the thing with the Zodiac. A game to play that ends up playing you. Making you question your safety, your security. Making you feel like prey.
Yes, Zodiac is a truly fine film, or rather three films in one. There’s the obvious mystery story, Graysmith’s Moby-Dick-like crusade and the game of the hunt. All three meld well into one very satisfying narrative, complete with all the custom touches of a masterful director at the wheel. Zodiac is a tight and sometimes harrowing journey, just like cat-and-mouse game the Zodiac put San Fransisco through some 40 years ago. Times of dread into paranoia into being haunted.
Rent it or relent it? Of course rent it. Zodiac is the kind of film you’ll want to watch on a lazy Saturday night with friends and then later again just to analyze and deconstruct not only the film, but the Zodiac mystery as well. Also, the movie’ll make you rethink crank calls ever after.
- “Does anyone have any Animal Crackers?”
- Melanie: “What’re you doing at a gun range?” Robert: “Reading.”
- Edwards’ hairpiece is rather distracting.
- Charles Fleischer who portrays Bob Vaughan was also the voice of Roger Rabbit. Really.
- Toschi: “Is this true?” Robert: “I’ve walked it.”
Christian Bale looses some sleep (as well as sanity) as The Machinist.