by Robert Graysmith
In Paperback from Amazon)
If it were my call I would have been disinclined to green light another film on that old venerable figure in unsolved serial murder cases: the Zodiac. I can only hope that I'd have considered further and given it my support and a firm go ahead because it turns out to be one dramatically powerful piece of business incorporating half of Hollywood's best leading men. Director David Fincher, working from a saga of a script by James Vanderbilt ("Basic") based on the book by Robert Graysmith, brings forward every step in the psychological combat against a clever and elusive madman. The exhaustive detail pays off with all the dramatic attributes of a mental cat-and-mouse-game thriller.
In the end, the Zodiac defied capture despite the resources brought to bear on identifying him. His killings are random and therefore detached from the methods of normal crime solving. From his first senseless shooting deaths of two teenagers parked at night in a lonely highway turnoff, what unintended clues he left came sporadically and with great effort, with the relevant ones shrouded in the killer's past and demanding very deep research. By the time they are unearthed from dormant files, the case has been all but closed, the finding of newly discovered threads and connections all but futile and legally questionable, and interest is pretty much buried under a generation of new cases.
In the early stages the killer puts himself on the front pages by demanding that his encoded message be printed by several newspapers, and we follow the reaction to it by the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle, from its publisher down to its much-taken-for-granted cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal, "Jarhead"). Leading the charge among reporters is Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr., "A Scanner Darkly") whose grandstanding, boozing and air of self-importance (in hippie togs and handsome facial hair) makes him difficult personality to work with. Forced by the killer's penchant for publicity into the position of working with their journalist nemeses are detective Inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, "All the King's Men") and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards - Dr. Mark Greene on "ER").
Another problem with the case is putting together facts and clues from several jurisdictions since the murders were strewn across a swath of Northern California boundary lines. It wasn't long before Sgt. Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas, "Novocaine") of one area and Ken Narlow (Donal Logue, "The Groomsmen") from another were doing all they could to assist San Francisco.
When industrial worker Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch, "Gothika") emerges as the prime suspect and handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill (Philip Baker Hall, "The Zodiac" of 2005) blew the legal case against him apart by failing to match handwriting, it spells the virtual end of official investigation, aided by the killer's cessation of activity. Perhaps Allen is the Zodiac and got scared off when he had to face the detectives' scrutiny. No doubt, his cleaning out of his trailer home from anything that might incriminate him is highly suspicious and another possible instance of the mouse outsmarting the trap.
This failure puts a few jobs on the line, causing the case to be closed so that the detectives can move on. But one player in all this not only doesn't let it go but develops an obsessive determination to stare the real killer in the face someday. Cartoonist Graysmith continues to investigate on a personal, ad hoc basis, both with and without official cooperation and absolutely no sanction. It also marks a significant change of pace as the collective anxieties come down to one man's quest.
Interestingly, it's as though the story were being told in two parts: before the case against the prime suspect, and after. The frenzy of almost daily contact with the killer creating gripping newsprint drama in the first part; the relentlessly detailed investigation by a lone individual unearthing clues with considerable difficulty providing tensions in the second part.
Graysmith gives up his job on the paper and puts his marriage with Melanie (Chloe Sevigny, "Boys Don't Cry") on the line until she skedaddles with the kids for fear hubby is putting the family in danger. Persistent in the belief that he's going to get the facts and prove who the killer is, he puts things that had never been put together into a tapestry of an insane killer's imprint and timeline. If it had been done sooner, the case might have had a different outcome. But, anyway, Graysmith's primary purpose was a book about the case -- the book from which this screenplay was adapted.
Key to a very long movie's fascination and success is an ensemble cast performing at peak levels. Intensity merged with inspiration was the formula guiding the work at all times, with much wry humor mixed into the suspense pot for balance. Dermot Mulroney as Captain Marty Lee, James LeGros as Officer George Bawart and Brian Cox as Melvin Belli are also worthy of mention for their contributory appearances.
Tech credits are consistently admirable, very notably the cinematography by Harris Savides' sharp work with the Thomson Viper filmStream camera in uncompressed digital video format. The visual presence this provided paid off in Savides' handling of newspaper offices, police stations, factory rooms, cars, a dim, scary cellar, and wherever the events of the story and Graysmith's search took him. Anyone interested in the state of digital rendering versus film need only look at this and "Apocalypto."
David Shire, the composer, no less, of "All the President's Men," takes credit for a score filled with rock of the period, delivering a thematic touchpoint for the era with Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man." Appropriate for a serial killer who put off the police and reporters with a circus act of taunts and misdirection?
In a rare case of a director having a second shot at the same subject, Fincher makes a better case of the Zodiac than he did in his 1995 Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman starrer, "Se7en." I never did like that one much (though it's on a lot of critics' Best lists) because of Pitt, who I couldn't buy as an investigator. An up and coming actor at the time, he didn't have the weight the part called for. But Fincher made up for his part in it with his fearsome "Panic Room" in 2002, and now again with this film, with which he can boast the rare achievement of keeping a discerning audience's attention for 2.5 hours.
~~ Jules Brenner
The Soundtrack Album
Available on DVD (2-Disc Director's Cut)
Blu-ray (2-Disc Director's Cut)
The Soundtrack Album
The Soundtrack Album
The Soundtrack Album