It’s been a good 12 years since David Fincher made the full-of-itself Se7en, and now that he directs another movie about a mass murderer, all the reviewers are expressing surprise at how bloody it isn’t. I rather expected Fincher to go this way, actually — he’s too savvy and creative a filmmaker to blatantly repeat himself. I’m still trying to figure out whether this director is an artist or a supremely talented popcorn purveyor. I’m not sure I care. What I do know is that Zodiac is whip-smart and really good, and that’s rare for a Hollywood release in March, even though it shouldn’t be.
The movie tells the story of the real-life killings that began in 1969 and sent all of California into a state of hysteria. The murderer called himself “Zodiac” in a series of taunting letters to police and newspapers that contained obscure codes and dared people to catch him. The case wound up absorbing a San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist named Robert Graysmith, who was present when Zodiac’s letters arrived at the paper’s offices. He wound up pursuing the case long after the trail had gone cold and the letters had stopped, and in 1986 he published a book that presented a compelling pile of circumstantial evidence against one resident of Vallejo, resolving a still-unsolved case to his own satisfaction.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, and he’s a bit too much of a puppy dog for the role of an obsessive killer-hunter — this role would have suited Edward Norton better. Fortunately, he’s surrounded by sharply defined performances from a huge supporting cast: Robert Downey Jr. as the hard-drinking Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as the lead cops on the investigation, Elias Koteas and Donal Logue as small-town lawmen drawn into the case, and Brian Cox as the foppish lawyer Melvin Belli.
Fincher does more than direct his actors well. He and cinematographer Harris Savides have a great time copying the Kodachrome soft-focus look of Alan J. Pakula’s 1970s Hollywood thrillers. This movie is rife with resemblances to his Klute and especially All the President’s Men, with its juxtaposition of the brightly lit newsrooms with the dark corners where the sleuths go poking around. The shadowy sets and lighting inject an atmosphere of sweaty dread even into an innocuous sequence like Graysmith’s descent into a basement with a creepy movie-theater projectionist (Charles Fleischer). For pure horror, though, nothing matches the killer’s deadly attack by a lakeside, the murders taking place in an area flooded with sunshine.
It’s true that parts of this 160-minute film feel tedious and exhausting, but only enough to convey that obsessives like Graysmith can be exhausting company, and that investigations that go unresolved for decades tend to be tedious. We’ve all seen too many police procedural tv shows that wrap themselves up neatly in 57 minutes with the killer in the slammer. Zodiac refuses to play to our expectations, and in doing so focuses our attention on the many people on the edges of the case. That’s why this serial-killer flick feels oddly full of life.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. Directed by David Fincher. Written by James Vanderbilt, based on Robert Graysmith’s books. Rated R.