Zodiac (2007)

Reviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 03/06/07 23:43:43

"Serial killing made bland, boring and completely tasteless."
3 stars (Just Average)

The Zodiac Killer is arguably the greatest unsolved crime in American history. Director David Fincher is arguably one of the greatest contemporary indie directors working in Hollywood. Actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Chloë Sevigny are arguably three of today’s greatest young actors. So why is it that when the five come together (along with an egomaniacal former political cartoonist turned writer), they create “Zodiac,” one of the most disappointing movies in recent memory. It’s certainly a fine movie, but when you’re expecting greatness, it’s hard to be satisfied with simply okay.

David Fincher’s “Zodiac” is underwhelming. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write when I first heard that the “Fight Club” director wanted to make a film version of one of the most fascinating true life serial killers in history, but in retrospect, it’s hardly surprising. During my senior year of high school, a friend and I were planning to write a screenplay for our senior English thesis, and we discussed basing the story on the Zodiac Killer, since we had both read Robert Graysmith’s book “Zodiac” several times. The idea was ultimately scraped, however, largely because logistically, the movie would be nearly impossible to make. How do you make a movie about a serial killer that seemingly has no motive, no pattern and has never been identified?

Fincher’s solution to that problem is perhaps the only logical one, but it’s also a severely flawed decision. Instead of basing the film on the actual killer, “Zodiac” primarily revolves around a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle and his unhealthy obsession with the case. That cartoonist just happened to be Robert Graysmith. What a nifty coincidence that the star of the film happens to be the same guy that wrote the book that Fincher based his movie on! At least one Web site, Zodiac Killer Facts [], has dedicated plenty of bandwidth to debunking the Graysmith’s credibility. At best, Graysmith appears to be a fringe player to the case, whose visibility was increased simply by being friends with San Francisco detective Dave Toschi and Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (although Graysmith himself admits that he doesn’t remember ever sharing big blue drinks with Avery like in the film). He is not an investigator, a journalist or even a writer; he is simply a man with an obsession and a lot of spare time on his hands.

Graysmith, as played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a quiet, no nonsense guy. He doesn’t drink or smoke or engage in debauchery of any kind. He’s also the kind of guy that’s not drawn to the case by the sensationalism of the killings or the killer’s bragging letters that follow; he’s more interested in the ciphers that accompany those letters because, as he says, “I like puzzles. I do them a lot.” He’s so bland he can’t even be bothered to form complex sentences. It also should be noted here that while the film and especially the trailer make it seem as though Graysmith himself solved the coded riddle, it was actually a couple in North Salinas that solved the first set. They are given about five seconds of screen time, while the Graysmith character is given considerably longer just to read the decoded letter aloud. Perhaps this is a nitpicking point, but its just one example of the film’s biggest hindrance: Graysmith’s ego.

Somehow, Fincher actually convinced Graysmith (and screenwriter James Vanderbilt, whose previous credits include the Tooth Fairy horror flick “Darkness Falls”) that he couldn’t place himself in every scene, so a sizable chuck of the first half is about detectives Toschi (played by a whispering Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), the two San Francisco police officers assigned to the Zodiac case when they investigate the death of cab driver Paul Stine, confirmed Zodiac victim No. 7. One of the Zodiac’s cleverer (if you’ll excuse the term) methods was to kill in different counties. Since each case was under the jurisdiction of a different county, all of the departments would have to coordinate and share their findings, which was often difficult, especially in cases as complex as this. But the film never truly exploits it, focusing primarily on San Francisco and reducing the other detectives, played by the always talented Donal Logue and Elias Koteas, to mere footnote characters.

But while these long, often tedious sections can hardly be called entertaining, they’re a highlight compared to the film’s second half. Avery (an effective Robert Downey Jr.), who provides some of the film’s only humor by constantly wearing around an “I am not Avery” button, has left the paper with a new addiction to alcohol and Armstrong has transferred out of homicide and off the Zodiac case. Without their No. 2 men, Graysmith and Toschi’s separate interest in the case take opposing turns. As we’ve already established, Graysmith becomes dangerously obsessed with the case (to the point of driving away his wife, played by Chloë Sevigny), while Toschi withdraws from the frustration. At this point, it should be pretty obvious that “Zodiac” is hardly unbiased, but in case you’re still unsure, the second half makes bold pronouncements that this is first and foremost the telling of the Robert Graysmith story, not that of the Zodiac Killer. Graysmith obsessively runs all over California to track down every scrap of information he can get, which all circumstantially points the finger at one primary suspect, Graysmith’s favorite (I won’t spoil who it is, just in case you’re still interested). The film does dismiss a second suspect and the book does the same for a third, but Graysmith is fully convinced of the guilt of his favorite, and the film does an effective job at pinning it on him, despite plenty of real life evidence (including DNA samples and handwriting analysis) that largely rules him out.

But while the film’s narrative may fail miserably, there are elements of “Zodiac” that succeed cinematically. Fincher, however, is not one of those elements. His reputation as a stylized master is certainly at risk here. After the highly successful run of “Se7en,” “The Game,” “Fight Club” and “Panic Room,” “Zodiac” looks bland in comparison. There’s nothing technically wrong with “Zodiac,” but there’s nothing spectacular about it either. Every moment of this very lengthy film is competent at best, but 2 ½ hours of competent filmmaking from a visionary director is sure to disappoint. Luckily, he gets better results from his actors. Gyllenhaal once again turns in a mature performance as he slowly loses control of his obsession. He even manages to shine during the film’s second half as Graysmith excitedly recounts his latest findings to Toschi; his infectious excitement manages to infuse the film with a temporary surge of life. As the comic relief of the film, Downey steals all of his scenes, simply by being entertaining (and a good old fashioned button gag never hurts either). But it is veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch (perhaps best known as Drew Carey’s cross-dressing brother) that turns in the film’s best performance. As one of the key suspects, Lynch’s performance is subtle enough to be flawlessly unsettling, and Lynch never falls into the trap of assigning blame. If only the film could be as responsible. Instead, “Zodiac” spends far too much time stroking Graysmith’s ego and not nearly enough time aspiring to be anything more than mediocre.

Sigh. Can you tell that I had such high hopes for this movie? If you have an interest in the Zodiac Killer, feel free to see it and form your own opinion. But if you’re looking for something good, go watch “Dirty Harry” instead.

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