A San Francisco cartoonist becomes an amateur detective obsessed with tracking down the Zodiac killer.
Year 2, Film #79
THE REVIEW: Not since I’ve seen The Usual Suspects a few years ago has there been a film that kept me guessing as much as Zodiac. David Fincher has always been great at bringing mystery in addition to a generous dose of suspense and he shows that again here. Zodiac is a long marathon of a movie clocking in at 157 minutes and you do feel that at times — the story spans 20+ years — but another of Fincher’s achievements here is that the film also remains interesting. There is never a dull moment in the search for a publicity-searching serial killer.
The film opens with an attempted double homicide of a couple out in the middle of an empty stretch of road. Afterwards, the killer, who later identifies himself as the Zodiac killer, calls in his crime and then mails several newspapers and police departments letters with a cypher and a coded message demanding publication on the newspaper’s front pages. Investigations begin from several different sources including San Fransico police officers Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), the police in Vallejo and Napa valley, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) who is the crime reporter for the San Fransico Chronicle, and of course, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is the cartoonist for the Chronicle and loves solving puzzles and therefore takes a great interest in the case.
The only two downsides to Zodiac is this large cast of characters and, as I mentioned above, a sprawling story that uses titles to denote every passes of time from several days to many years. The investigation of the murder not only includes the many victims and countless suspects, but also the large amount of people trying to solve the case. Where the film succeeds is in differentiating between all of these people. You are never confused as to who’s who and with which division they are associated, a common problem when you have a large amount of people to keep track of (think of the twelve dwarves in The Hobbit films). It’s in making sure that each character gets an appropriate amount of screen time and focus that the film falters a bit. As the investigation develops, prime suspects change and the jurisdiction of who’s in charge follows suit. While the key players — Toschi, Avery, and Graysmith — remain a constant presence throughout, it’s the more minor characters who only show up once and a while that leave you feeling the structure and pacing of the film is off. Part of that may be the amount of characters, but another part is the time jumps that occur quite frequently. In an effort to keep true to the original case files (a commendable act), sense of time is all but lost. Instead of condensing several days into one, or rather, simply reducing the amount of time titles shown, each separate day is noted. In an effort to help, the date is also accompanied by a “1 week later” (or similar) note but after a few, the amount of time after the start of the film becomes blurry. A similar thing happened in Dallas Buyers Club and instead of displaying the veracity of the filmmakers, it just adds unnecessary confusion.
All that being said, there is a lot to like about this film. These two downsides pale in comparison to the many positives this film has to offer. One of the most impressive for me what how surprisingly fast this film went by. As I said earlier, at 157 minutes Zodiac is no walk in the park and this length is rarely seen as you watch the mystery unfold. And a big reason why the film seems to breeze by is Fincher’s skill with the thriller genre. Each scene ends with a big suspense as you feel like something is about to happen before a brief release at the beginning of the next scene to prepare you for another climactic build-up. Fincher’s brilliance is that while each scenes feels like it will end with a big action, you never know which scene actually will. Every scene doesn’t end in another murder by the Zodiac killer or a big discovery by the investigators, but you always tense up in anticipation of the unknown. Not knowing what’s around the corner always keeps you on your toes, but what Fincher never leads you into fatigue. There’s just enough breathing room in the film to let you relax and let your guard down before your right back pumping adrenaline through your system for the next big thing that’s about to happen.
Which is the other thing I really have to commend here and that is the mystery. One of my favorite genres of film is the mystery genre because I always love trying to guess what’s going to happen (and am always pleasantly surprised when I turn out to be wrong — that means the filmmakers did their job well. I’ve seen a lot of mystery films, many of which have left me stumped and puzzled until the big reveal at the end but before Zodiac, no film had ever surpassed The Usual Suspects in terms of major shock value at the end. Zodiac still falls short in terms of the end shock value, but it far surpasses The Usual Suspects in how many times I switched mindsets of who the prime suspect was. Just when I thought I knew who the killer was, some new piece of evidence would come into play and make my guess completely invalid. Many films will do that, and do it quite well, which may make this that statement seem underwhelming. But it is not hyperbole when I say that Zodiac does this more often, and more manipulatively than any other film I’ve seen. When you come up with a new suspect in your mind, you fully believe it with no doubts that you are correct, only to be blindsided when that turns out not to be the case. It is all-around a mysterious and ever-changing investigation that will have you thinking until the very end.
Despite quite a lengthy paragraph going into how the large cast and sprawling time-frame of Zodiac are downsides to the film, you should really pay more attention to the two paragraphs after that. The mastery with which David Fincher has with mystery and suspense are shown to full effect here and leave you engrossed for the entire two and a half hours you’ll be watching this film. There is never a dull moment in Zodiac, only brief moments of rest during which you have time to process all the information you just received before you’re thrust yet again into some highly entertaining and thrilling sequence of events. Any fan of Fincher’s work should definitely see Zodiac as should anyone who loves intense, nail-biting thrillers that will keep your heart racing and your jaw clenched in fear at all that takes place.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5