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Zodiac (2007)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"I Left My Life In San Francisco"
5 stars

Anyone who walks into David Fincher’s "Zodiac" expecting nothing more than another helping of the grisly imagery of "Seven," the narrative tricks and twists of "The Game" and "Fight Club" or the in-your-face visual pyrotechnics of "Panic Room" may find themselves disappointed with the relative absence of the very elements that have made him one of the most talked-about filmmakers of our time. That said, I suspect that most of those people will be too blown away with what is on the screen to even notice what isn’t. With this sprawling true-crime epic, Fincher has given us something new and utterly different from his previous works–a straightforward and unflashy throwback to the kind of smart, densely packed and adult-oriented narratives that flourished for a time in the 1970's in the works of people like Alan J. Pakula and Sidney Lumet before the industry decided to toss the audience for such fare aside for silly popcorn entertainments aimed at the lowest common denominator. The result is arguably Fincher’s finest work to date and one of the most gripping police procedurals that I have ever seen.

"Zodiac" is, of course, based on the Zodiac Killer, a fiend who terrorized the nation in general and the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970's with a string of brutal murders that technically remain unsolved to this day. What really unnerved people was the fact that for the first time since Jack the Ripper, an avowed murderer began contacting the police and local newspapers with coded messages that threatened even more heinous future crimes (including a suggestion that he would shoot out the tires on a school bus and pick off kids as they emerged) while taunting the police with clues and hints to his identity that still managed to keep him frustratingly out of reach. Although a couple of promising leads would emerge, a combination of bad luck, faulty communication and the passage of time would eventually lead to the case being all but forgotten by everyone but the people who committed themselves to uncovering Zodiac’s identity and who would be haunted by their failure to do so for years to come.

Starting with the first killing on July 4, 1969–a Lover’s Lane shooting that leaves a woman dead and her boyfriend gravely wounded–"Zodiac" leads us through the twists and turns of the investigation through the eyes of four men–Homicide cops Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal)–whose lives would be changed forever by it. For Avery, Toschi and Armstrong, the high profile of the case would make them celebrities for a while but the strain of pursuing one fruitless lead after another and their inability to crack the case in the glare of the limelight would eventually send each one into a personal and professional tailspin. Avery finds his life threatened and retreats into a haze of drugs and booze in a futile effort to calm his growing paranoia. As for Toschi and Armstrong, they doggedly follow every clue they can find and even begin to focus on one suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), on whom they can pin plenty of circumstantial evidence but nothing concrete enough to make an arrest. Eventually, the mild-mannered Armstrong can no longer take the pressure and he leaves the homicide department altogether while Toschi, an ambitious cop who served as the model for the main character in the Steve McQueen classic "Bullitt," sees the case drift further away from a conclusion with every passing month–to add insult to injury, his cinematic ambitions mock him as the then-current case is turned into the hit film "Dirty Harry" (which filmed in San Francisco during the height of the Zodiac panic) with Clint Eastwood supplying the happy ending that he is apparently unable to provide in real life.

As for Graysmith, his initial contact with the case is an accident–when the first Zodiac letter is read during a Chronicle editorial meeting, he recognizes part of it as coming from the old adventure film "The Most Dangerous Game." Eventually, he would grow just as obsessed with the case as the others and after years of silence from the Zodiac, he hits upon the idea of doing a book that will collect all the evidence in one place and maybe shake something loose. As with the others, this obsession plays havoc with his personal life–outlasting his courtship, marriage and divorce from second wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny)–but his fresh eye begins to see similarities and make connections that the other investigators missed over the years. Eventually he comes across his own prime suspect as well but by this point, he has gotten in so deep in his determination to prove that this particular person did it that he doesn’t even realize until it is almost too late that he may have led himself right into a deadly trap.

Even at 158 minutes, "Zodiac" still has to get across an enormous amount of information to viewers without simply turning the film into a dry recitation of facts. Although it must have been a nightmare to wrestle it all into a workable film, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt (working from the two books that Graysmith would eventually write about the crimes) has somehow managed to pull it off beautifully. We are constantly being bombarded with information throughout but it is always presented in a surprisingly clear and concise manner that allows viewers to follow the story without having to dumb it down too much–to find an example as impressive as this, you’d have to go back to "JFK" or "All the Presidents Men." We understand who the characters are and why they begin to unravel in the ways that they do. Most importantly, we learn how crimes were investigated at the time to show how technical limitations may have helped Zodiac evade pursuit–after all, how much of a difference can it make that the San Francisco police have a fancy new machine called a fax that they can send information through if the police in another town don’t?–while suggesting just how close the police came to possibly nabbing him during that time.

Stylistically, "Zodiac" is a triumph as well and while that may seem like a fait accompli for anything directed by Fincher, his work here is on a more intimate level than he has ever attempted before and the results are stunning. Yes, the film looks great (although shot in HD by Harris Savides, it has the feel of an authentic 70's-era film, right down to the vintage Paramount logo that kicks things off) and Fincher has done an incredible job of recreating the look of everyday life during the period. What is more impressive, though, is the way that he captures the sense of fear and dread that gripped everyone in the Bay Area at the time–that dark and troubling sense that anyone you came across could be a mad-dog killer who would slaughter you in an instant for no good reason. Another fascinating aspect of the film is the way that Fincher approaches the violence–there is surprisingly little of it on display and what little there is of it is almost entirely confined to the recreations of three of the killings seen in the first half-hour. Even in these scenes, however, it becomes clear that Fincher is less interested in splattering guts and more interested in finding a way of presenting the killings in a way that approximates the mindset of Zodiac. The first Lovers Lane killing is presented in a conventional enough manner, the second is a drawn-out affair of psychological and physical torture and the third occurs so abruptly that by the time we register what has happened, he has already slipped off into the darkness. At this point, Fincher has the audience so thoroughly unnerved that every scene is charged with a sense of genuine fear and dread that is rarely found these days and is the kind of thing that will linger in the mind for far longer than the silly jolts found in most contemporary suspense films.

The other juggling act that Fincher pulls off wonderfully comes from the way in which he handles his huge ensemble cast–this comes as a bit of a surprise since his previous films have, for the most part, only focused on a handful of characters. Although hampered by the fact that he doesn’t seem to age throughout the film, Jake Gyllenhaal does a good job of portraying an ordinary guy who finds his life overwhelmed by forces beyond his control. Edwards and Ruffalo develop a nice byplay between their characters that convinces us that they are genuinely partners without overselling it too much. The always-compelling Downey turns in one of his very best performances as the increasingly burnt-out Avery–when the AFI gets around to giving him their Lifetime Achievement Awards, I hope they remember the scene here in which he sits at a bar with Gyllenhaal and contemplates an exceptionally fruity beverage–and there are also nifty smaller turns from the likes of Chloe Sevigny, Brian Cox (very funny as celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli), Elias Koteas and Charles Fleischer. The one supporting performance that I do want to single out is one from John Carroll Lynch as prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen–near the end of the film, he encounters a character who, unbeknownst to him, has been pursuing him for years and the look that Lynch gives us at his moment of realization is one of the creepiest things I can remember seeing in a while.

With "Zodiac," David Fincher confirms once and for all that he is among the finest working in the world today–how many others do you know of who could make a film as thrilling as this in which most of the action involves two or three people talking in a room Because it is long, grim and moody and tells a story that requires a long attention span and doesn’t provide any cathartic chase scenes or gun battles in the final reels, I have the sad suspicion that those anticipating a standard-issue serial killer thriller (the kind unfortunately suggested in the ads) may come away from "Zodiac" feeling disappointed that Fincher hasn’t given them the typical fare that they have come to expect from the genre. And yet, I’d like to think that there is an audience out there that is as tired of the same old stuff as Fincher clearly is and that they will respond to a film such as "Zodiac"–one that is extraordinary instead of simply extra-ordinary.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15568&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/02/07 00:40:14
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User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell 2 long but chilling 4 stars
1/05/11 David A. Mostly a documentary, but it gets scary when the Wallace Penny character gets into it. 4 stars
12/31/10 Simon Interesting source material, nice directing doesnt save the bland writing/pace; forgettable 3 stars
10/15/10 montedelasánimas Scary, realistic, sometimes perversely fun. Don't miss it. 5 stars
7/23/10 bagwell5 One of the best movies of the last decade. Long running time but always fascinating. 5 stars
7/04/09 MP Bartley Repeat viewings reveal more and more. An American classic. 5 stars
1/08/09 Anonymous. i loved it! 5 stars
7/27/08 Al from Bangkok Great. Nearly documentary in presentation, only riveting. 5 stars
3/04/08 ladavies Way too long, and not that memorable for me. 3 stars
1/22/08 Double M Finally a proper (and different) Fincher thriller, welcome back! Great directing and acting 5 stars
10/23/07 Ivana Mann The best serial killer movie since "Silence of the Lambs."Totally creepy & spellbinding! 5 stars
10/14/07 fools♫gold everything believable, everything enjoyable, everything just right 5 stars
8/31/07 Indrid Cold Well crafted but utterly bland, like a reenactment on Unsolved Mysteries. 3 stars
8/18/07 The Man If youre expecting a sensationalized thriller you may be disappointed. But its great. 5 stars
8/07/07 Dan Rizzi Terrific! Every performance here is outstanding, particularly Robert Downey Jr. 5 stars
8/04/07 Charles Tatum A modern day classic, riveting 5 stars
7/31/07 Monday Morning About 45 mins. too long, and Jake is about 150% too obsessed w/ the case. 3 stars
7/26/07 action movie fan good start but drags too much and has no suspense-a bit of a letdown 3 stars
7/02/07 William Goss Engrossing investigative epic is daunting in the best possible way. 4 stars
6/18/07 Jessiika My ass got really sore while i was watching it. I liked how he stabbed those people though. 3 stars
6/06/07 Germaine SO long. SO boring. Absolutely no depth or suspense. Terrible! 1 stars
5/22/07 MP Bartley Detailed, yet thoroughly absorbing. Superb performances. 4 stars
5/19/07 adam egas straight pimpin, loved it so much, soo good 1 stars
3/30/07 tracey I actually fell asleep and woke up to the cleaning crew staring at me. BORING. 3 stars
3/28/07 Lee A exciting thriller, that will haunt you long after the closing credit. 5 stars
3/20/07 carniv4 Good movie, but this tru story is not that compelling. Already forgotten it, 3 stars
3/17/07 Greg Holds your attention from start to finish, Downey is amazing! 5 stars
3/16/07 Jason Fisher Enthralling, absorbing from start to finish; no small feat for a movie nearly 3 hours long! 5 stars
3/14/07 Spark It BLOWS!!!! 1 stars
3/11/07 Pascal Boring, too long, no suprise, not even moving... very desapointing... 2 stars
3/10/07 dmitry Fincher's best because it doesn't just wallow in the grotesque 5 stars
3/06/07 Ryan Too long, too many details one some portions and not enough of others. Ending sucks 2 stars
3/05/07 George Jung Best film of 2007 so far. 5 stars
3/05/07 Luisa First half very engaging, but ran way too long... 4 stars
3/05/07 Gerald Sherfy Read the book instead; good performances and attention to detail but long in the tooth 3 stars
3/04/07 Edler Too long, no red-herrings, more like a documentary. But good to watch. 4 stars
3/03/07 Ole Man Bourbon Entertaining throughout its long run-time. Easy to recommend despite some reviews. 4 stars
3/03/07 E. N. Meticulously constructed; superlative filmmaking; a compelling and riveting film 5 stars
3/03/07 Shobert The longest episode of "Law & Order" I have ever seen. 3 stars
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  02-Mar-2007 (R)
  DVD: 24-Jul-2007

  18-May-2007 (15)
  DVD: 24-Sep-2007

  17-May-2007 (MA)

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