Zodiac Review

(2.5 STARS)

Ask a random assortment of film lovers what their favorite David Fincher film is and there’s a good chance a majority will vote for Zodiac, the director’s 2007 look at the effects of a serial killer in 1970s San Francisco. Strangely enough, I find Zodiac to be among Fincher’s least successful efforts. It has a few really special moments, especially in the first hour, but it meanders along without a focus for far too long. It tries to cover too much time, too many subjects, and it ends with a whimper—leaving you without any sense of closure.

The killer who called himself Zodiac shocked thousands of California residents with a string of seemingly random murders beginning in 1968. It remains a mystifying situation not only because the murders seemed random, but also because the Zodiac has never been caught or identified. The case remains open today, and Fincher’s film will tell you that those involved all have a different “favorite suspect.”

The film doesn’t use the Zodiac as its primary focus. Rather, it focuses on three men whose lives were forever changed by the killer. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. His penchant for puzzles makes him an important figure for the police and his superiors at the Chronicle because he’s the only one who can solve the Zodiac’s cryptic messages. Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a reporter, colleague of Robert’s, and boozehound. His fearlessness and hunger for a story makes him seek the Zodiac with zeal, but that zeal soon turns to dangerous obsession. Finally, there’s Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), an inspector for the SFPD. He and his partner, William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), are in charge of the Zodiac case, and their lack of progress disrupts their personal and professional lives in irreversible ways.

The biggest problem I had with the film was that it doesn’t allow you to get close to anyone. Like many of Fincher’s films, it’s an emotionally muted affair, which is fine. The problem instead refers to Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s tendency to shift the film’s focus multiple times. The first third or so splits time equally between the police, the reporters, and the murders themselves. Unsurprisingly, it’s the best portion of the film by a mile. It’s a creepy, unsettling, and inspired look at the fear that must’ve been present in all of these individuals during this time. The film then shifts its focus to Avery. He’s unceremoniously disposed of, and we focus on Toschi’s investigation and his problems. Finally, we end with a lengthy look at Graysmith and his obsession with the Zodiac. It’s not that any of these stories is uninteresting, but they lack a cohesive theme to link them together.

Technically, however, Fincher is as good as ever. The cinematography is outstanding with some really cool aerial shots of the streets of San Francisco. As in many of Fincher’s films, including The Social Network, the film has a real clean, crisp look to it, but Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides definitely don’t shy away from incorporating the film’s darker, grittier elements into the look of the film. On top of that, I also appreciated the soundtrack, full of familiar and appropriate tunes from the 1960s and 1970s.

While the cast is solid on paper, few of the actors turn out truly memorable performances. Robert Downey Jr. is the best of the bunch, but Paul Avery is a character we’ve seen him play before. That doesn’t make it any less fun to watch, however. Jake Gyllenhaal appears a bit lost. His character is a nice guy, but he’s not all that compelling and the actor, so good in other pictures, doesn’t do much to distinguish him from other nice guys on film. Mark Ruffalo is solid but unspectacular as Toschi.

I get why people like Zodiac so much, but it doesn’t quite do it for me. I love many individual scenes (the first murder; Graysmith in the creepy basement), but there are too many problems for me to give this a real recommendation. Part of it, too, is expectations. With a director as good as Fincher, it’s not unreasonable to expect brilliance every time, and unfortunately, Zodiac just isn’t brilliant.

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