Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky, Brokeback Mountain), Mark Ruffalo (13 Going on 30) and Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin), Zodiac is directed by Fight Club’s own David Fincher. The biggest drawback to the film is that this great and talented filmmaker is working with too weak of screenplay.
The Zodiac Killer, a notorious killer of the 1970s pops off people, left and right. Sends letters left and right to newspapers, and threatens to kill more unless these papers print out a series of symbols or codes. Jake Gyllenaal plays Robert Graysmith, a spunky young cartoonist who just wants to be noticed and apprised for his talents. Graysmith immediately figures out the Zodiac Killer’s code before anyone else. But do we get time to marvel in the magic of his skill? No.
When we see our central characters again, it’s almost ten minutes later. Robert Graysmith is trying to explain the codes to his boss and fellow reporter, Paul Avary (Downey Jr.). Do we get any time to understand what these codes mean? No. We cut directly to a dreamy sequence where we follow a cab driving through the streets. A spectacular opening sequence for a random taxi of death – so to speak.
Someone gets killed, and someone in the area calls 911. Someone wakes up Inspector David Toschi (Ruffalo) to investigate the killing. Then we get to meet his partner, Inspector William Armstrong played by Anthony Edwards. If you remember him at all from E.R., you’ll have a hard time seeing him with a flat-top haircut. There are some great moments between these two characters. Unfortunately, the film is too preoccupied in showing us some well-directed, but ultimately elaborate, stylized slasher killings that leave nothing to the imagination, and leave us feeling hollow.
For what feels like the next 3 hours, we follow these central characters try to solve the killing, understand the Zodiac Killer, and resolve some of their personal issues. This group of people is much more intriguing than anything the killer does. Fincher’s past in murder-mystery peaked it seems when he made Se7en. His brilliance in capturing atmosphere is almost inexistent. The strange question is: Is that good or bad? Se7en was so gruelingly foul and depressing you can’t help but feel like the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing. There is hardly any atmosphere in Zodiac to speak of. The way Fincher captures character moments now is almost so brilliant, it’s easy to overlook the fact that these people are suppose to be living in the 70s, but there’s really no evidence to back that up. Didn’t we just get out of Vietnam? Weren’t there a lot of people trying to live free and make the world a better place? We’ve got some realistic costumes, period references, drugs, rock n’ roll, and alcohol, but the spirit of that era is practically inexistent.
As I’ve said before, it’s really the central characters that really make Zodiac worth watching. Their personal dramas come in at the right times and actors, Gyllenaal, Ruffalo, and Downey Jr. play their roles extremely well. Graysmith is a divorcee who drops everything personal in his life just to track down the Zodiac. The case almost drives him insane. Toschi is an average cop trying to make ends meet, trying to get ahead. The Zodiac case seems like just another day on the job to him. Downey Jr.’s Paul Avary is struggling to keep his job and speak his mind, growing more and more agitated with the people he works for. The Zodiac killings are practically a joke to him. The inspectors, Toschi and Armstrong capture their first and only suspect. They end up having to set the man free. The story takes two U-turns and goes right back down the same redundant road. Gyllenhaal’s character tries to finish the job the police started, research the case for a book, and perhaps capture the true Zodiac. My biggest complaint with this part of the film is that these characters, their passion for the case and their link with each other almost seem unnatural by the end.
The story jumps from killing to killing, dates to dates, and hidden truths to hidden truths too much before we ever really get to know our central characters. Fincher’s ability to capture moments between people is phenomenal. All that’s missing is a lack of character in the screenplay. Women are frightened by strange behavior almost immediately. Is there any hidden depth with these cardboard characters? Hardly. Male victims in this story seem wimpy. It’s these parts of the film that remind of well-directed scenes out of a Friday the 13th kind of slasher film. Even though dialogue in some parts of the film is light-handed and buoyant, this doesn’t help keep the story rolling. Some parts of the case start to sound like confusing drivel and we find out that everything could’ve been wrapped up neatly much earlier in the final scene.
By the end of the film, it’s almost as if we just finished watching two completely different films. One reminds me too much of a run-of-the-mill murder mystery, the other is a drama about a man trying to fulfill a dream. This tale shouldn’t run on so long. Then, there’s that whole 360 turn the story takes.
I just hope this very talented filmmaker gets another shot to prove his true value as a director, a screenplay and story that better compliments his talent than Zodiac. This isn’t quite as bad as Fincher’s first attempt in Alien 3. Zodiac is not as profoundly atmospheric as Se7en or well told as Fight Club, and not quite as deeply scary as Panic Room. It’s long, routine work that ultimately leaves its audience feeling bored and hollow to the entire Zodiac case.
DVD Features: Depends on which version. The version I was able to rent had 5.1 surround sound, previews of movies that have already come out, your standard scene selection and audio setup.
Final verdict: Great to rent and see once – if for nothing else, to see a great cast in great performances, and a great director in his element saddled with a badly written story. It’s not something I would want to buy.