[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B0013BCWEW][/pullquote] Arguably one of the most sensational real-life crime, man-hunt procedurals of all time, The Zodiac Killer is the subject of David Fincher’s supremely rich and engaging thriller Zodiac. Based on a book of the same name by Robert Graysmith it follows the investigation from police, reporters and the author himself to discover the identity of a serial killer who plagued San Francisco and the surrounding area from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.
Following an attempted double murder in Vallejo County in California, the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle receive a letter from someone referring to himself as the Zodiac and claiming credit for the shooting. The letter also contains a cipher which is published in the paper. A case is opened with Inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) at it’s head as they try to discover the true identity of the killer. The investigation is also helped, and in some cases hindered by the duo of reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Fincher has never been one to shy aware from brutality in form and Zodiac is no exception, the murders are unflinchingly chilling and the tonal atmosphere oppressive and sometimes grotesque. Unlike his work on Fight Club or Seven, this is less showy and more somber and downbeat and it ripples with truth and realism from the first frame. Even the so-bizarre-it-must-be-true moments like the on-air phone-in conversation are played to perfection, with equal parts tension and humour.
Despite the mammoth running time, Zodiac never drags and each and every scene is carefully considered and masterfully created. The stop-motion building of the Trans-America pyramid, the God POV across the Golden gate Bridge and the sultry California summers are all beautifully rendered and shot. His eye for period detail never wavers and the blending of real footage into fictionalized footage is sublime.
The cast on the whole are excellent. Ruffalo and Edwards are convincing as the salt-of-the-Earth cops and Brian Cox has a fun, if short supporting role as a pompous lawyer-turned actor Melvin Belli. Robert Downey Jr. mumbles and stutters his way through the film with his recognizable verbal ticks, but he stays just on the right side of farcical to bring the charismatic drunk that is Paul Avery to life. Gyllenhaal cleverly makes us question his motives, but never his honesty. The fact that he is so unpopular and so unaware of his unpopularity makes him even more trustworthy as a source. The two are best when placed together and the aside from extended desk-looking scenes, their conversations in bars and homes bring enough levity to counter the growing tension.
Speaking of tension, Fincher has always been adept at bringing a horror film asthetic to a realistic thriller and Zodiac sees him reach the height of his game. Brimming with confidence from fiction serial killer thriller Seven, he brings almost unbearable tension and stress to bear on his audience. One scene in particular, down in the basement might be the single most affecting scene of the film, and stands head and shoulders above anything from an out-and-out horror. His use of lighting, score and angles places the viewer front-and-centre in a potentially disturbing scene.
The fact that there is little payoff to this doesn’t make any difference to the storytelling and that’s true of the film as a whole too. Even though the case has never been sold, he weaves his narrative around the facts they do know and a series of circumstantial evidence to lay the blame squarely at one character’s feet, even if it has never been proven.
Fincher’s ambition and execution of what could have been a mundane police procedural highlight just what a talented and versatile director he is. Blessed with a great cast and an engaging story, well told through it’s tight script and you have a film that is wonderfully realised and a true downbeat classic.