Film Reviews

ZODIAC

By • Mar 2nd, 2007 •

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Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures present a Phoenix Pictures production of a David Fincher film
Running time — 157 minutes

A long movie with lots of suspects and details but no pay-off.

ZODIAC, as you all know, is the story of the self-nicknamed San Francisco Bay Area serial killer who was never caught, even though he nagged and taunted the police and media for years. In fact, he never shut up! He wrote letters, sent puzzles, made calls and even went on radio shows and took questions from callers.

His spree started on the Fourth of July, 1969 in Vallejo, California (though he claimed 2 other previous murders). The female driver was killed but the male passenger survived. He was the only living witness of the Zodiac’s rampage.

The San Francisco Chronicle received a letter, including a cipher, a month later. The paper’s crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), was given the story to cover. Being impartial, Zodiac sent letters and ciphers to two other S.F. newspapers. Demanding all three papers publish his cipher, a middle-aged couple cracked the cipher! Great police work! This film centers on neglected, underappreciated Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who took a lifelong interest in the case. He worked just a few desks away from Avery.

I admit to having spent a lot of time posting on a “find BTK” website. You would be shocked how many people are obsessed with the minutiae of unsolved crimes. There is a terrific website on the death of Jon Benet Ramsey run by Ruth Gerstenkorn called “How Was JonBenet Ramsey Strangled?” and I’ve been a member for years of the authoritative Jack The Ripper website, Casebook.org. To join the forum, I had to send a snail mail letter to the editor vowing something or other (the editor has since made it easier to post).

So it is not unusual for someone that close to the Zodiac case insider information to want to do some off-the-clock research.

The Zodiac case was being handled by San Francisco Police Department’s chief homicide inspector Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) and his partner,William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).

The film is so thoroughly researched that we sense that there will be an arrest. After all, Zodiac was leaving clues and even drawing maps. The problem was in the many locations Zodiac killed in. Zodiac traveled around, involving many different police jurisdictions.

Graysmith’s marriage eventually collapsed, giving him room for his mammoth research for his book on the crimes (I have the paperback). Graysmith did find a candidate, though I would have preferred more information about why this suspect, a convicted child molester, was picked out of a crowd of thousands. Since this suspect died in 1992 without confessing or sending any more trinkets and letters to newspapers, we have to just consider him a good guess. The lone survivor of the Zodiac killing spree identified him, but apparently that wasn’t enough since there was no physical evidence linking the main suspect to the crimes.

Graysmith does find the suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), who is working in a convenience store. He doesn’t talk to him. Huh? This guy cost him his marriage and family! He’s the star of his book! Why not ask him a few “What If?” questions?

Ted Bundy eagerly agreed to give his thoughts on serial killers by answering questions in the third person, a technique that allows someone to talk freely without actually confessing to anything (“Ted Bundy: Conversations With A Killer” by Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth). We learned a lot about his technique. We now all know that when a guy with a cast on his arm or using crutches asks for help, you say “No.”

Downey, one of the greatest actors of our generation (God knows I hate that pompous title!), has become today’s Dennis Hopper. He knows how to take a small flashy role and make everyone else look like it’s their first time on a movie set. Here, he is once again in his own movie.

Unfortunately, Gyllenhaal has a rather unforgiving role as a little squirrel trying to get scraps of information from police officers and a caricatured wasted crime reporter. Are all crime reporters drunks? And Gyllenhaal does fall back on his dumb-expression acting style more than once. (Obviously, he just could not figure out what Fincher wanted of him. See below.)

Fincher is a craftsman, bringing a sense of isolation and fear to the screen. After seeing ZODIAC you don’t want to drive around the Bay Area at night – The Son of Zodiac may be still lurking about. To his credit, Fincher does what he can with the material and investigative nuts and bolts. It is not an easy task to make the hunt for the killer interesting since we all know the killer was smarter than everybody else.

Why would a convicted child molester kill a cab driver?

Jake Gyllenhaal has spoken frankly about Fincher’s directing style: “David knows what he wants, and he’s very clear about what he wants, and he’s very, very, very smart. But sometimes we’d do a lot of takes, and he’d turn, and he would say, because he had a computer there” — the movie was shot digitally — ” ‘Delete the last 10 takes.’ And as an actor that’s very hard to hear.”

Gyllenhaal’s candid confession of his frustrations with Fincher’s degree of control over his performance led the director to joke: “I hate earnestness in performance,” adding, “Usually by Take 17 the earnestness is gone.” While he had no objections to having fun, he said, “When you go to your job, is it supposed to be fun, or are you supposed to get stuff done?”

Oh, I doubt Fincher handled Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Jodie Foster, and Lord Knows Not Edward Norton in the same manner as he did Jake.


Credits:
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt
Based on the book by: Robert Graysmith
Producers: Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer, James Vanderbilt, Cean Chaffin
Executive producer: Louis Phillips
Director of photography: Harris Savides
Production designer: Donald Graham Burt
Editor: Angus Wall
Costume designer: Casey Storm
Music: David Shire
Music supervisor: Randall Poster

Cast:
Robert Graysmith: Jake Gyllenhaal
Inspector David Toschi: Mark Ruffalo
Paul Avery: Robert Downey Jr.
Inspector William Armstrong: Anthony Edwards
Melvin Belli: Brian Cox
Sgt. Jack Mulanax: Elias Koteas
Melanie: Chloe Sevigny

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