Published on May 24th, 2007 | by Hans Fruck0
David Fincher’s meticulous and compelling serial killer pic runs to an unsurprising two-and-a-half hours. Spanning decades, the story of America’s most elusive murderer was drawn from over 10,000 pages of actual case files. It involved testimony from dozens of witnesses and included evidence from three different police jurisdictions. It was the daily work of at least four different men for endless, frustrating years. There is a lot of story to tell, so Zodiac is a long film. What surprises here is not the wealth of detail or the time is takes to illuminate, but the sudden flower of purpose about half way through. The Zodiac killer fascinated a generation, but one man remained obsessed long after his generation had moved on.
In the late sixties, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) was a cartoonist with the San Francisco Chronicle. When his paper received a cipher from a man calling himself Zodiac – a man who claimed responsibility for at least five murders and vowed to do more – Robert became fixated with the hunt. Watching quietly from the sidelines, he followed two homicide detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) and the Chronicle’s crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr) as they struggled to pin down a man who repeatedly taunted the police, the public and the media – but remained out of their grasp. As each man slowly lost hope, lost their conviction or their soul, only Robert was left to solve the puzzle.
Based on two books written by Graysmith long after the Zodiac fell silent, the film builds his experience from the ground up, from the first fateful killing to the last breath of chance some thirty years later. When the slaughtering spree is in effect, Graysmith is a footnote while the other men act out the complexities, complications and tensions that stymied the search – and only when they have given up do we understand why Graysmith is there at all. But Fincher balances his populous cast with consummate skill, giving each character a full life even as he pares back all the unnecessary fat from the story. His pacing is precise but unhurried, blending the overwhelming weight of factual history with a living, breathing time and place; the art direction is subtle but rich, with each passing year merging seamlessly into the next. And Harry Savides’ (Elephant, Birth) cinematography is absolutely beautiful – warm, dark, often overwhelmingly clever.
Compared to Summer of Sam, for example, Zodiac is less obviously concerned with the killings as defining a cultural zeitgeist as much as it is an intimate portrait of a killer from several different perspectives. The role of the media in defining this man is fascinating, and it is at the heart of Fincher’s film. From his first letter to the editor to a phone-in counselling session on live television, through to Graysmith’s books and their role in unmasking the murderer, the Zodiac was a man who was characterised by his relationship to mass communication. So we see Graysmith and his fellow fanatics, their lives slowly destroyed by an invisible enemy, but bleeding through it all we see the tabloid news, the television editorials and the radio awash with paranoia, and Fincher teaches us that this intangible demon was mostly what we made him.