How do you make a movie about the hunt for a famous serial killer when the hunt never really ended and the killer was never really caught? Especially when almost every piece of evidence seems to contradict every other piece, multiple "favorite" suspects are still tossed around and the whole mess is so knotted up and convoluted that there remains a very good possibility that the so-called "Zodiac" may have been almost-entirely a creation of hype and hysteria?
If you're David Fincher, a vanguard of the so-called "MTV School" of directors who's earlier films (chiefly "Se7en" and "Fight Club") are already pointed to as revered classics by fans and stylistic excess by critics, the answer seems to be: You pull back. You slow down. You set yourself a leisurely (but in no way "relaxed") running time of just-under 3 hours. You focus on what IS knowable: The evidence. The statements. The contradictions. The suspicions. The history of the period. You ground your narrative in the exploits of three different real-life people - a detective, a journalist, a cartoonist - known to have undertaken three different forms of investigation into the case. You set up as your theme the psychological and personal toll the unsolvability of the case takes on them.
Oh, you also make the first real contender for the best movie of 2007.
For the uninitiated, Zodiac was (and may still be) the most media-involved/driven serial murder case since Jack The Ripper. From the late-60s to the mid-70s someone calling himself The Zodiac began sending letters to the publishers of San Fransisco area newspapers, taking credit for a series of seemingly-isolated local shootings and stabbings and offering details and (eventually) bloody evidence as proof; along with crytpic secret-message cyphers and a self-chosen "logo" that turned the event into a media frenzy. Soon enough he was claiming credit for murders he may likely have not even committed, murders were being claimed on his behalf, and eventually it seemed as though the police were trying to catch not a man, but a force of nature as real yet imperceptible as the wind - and about as difficult to capture. To this day, the case remains unsolved; one of the most notorious "cold cases" ever.
Fincher's film approaches the task of a police procedural which by necessity-of-facts must actually be ALL about procedure through the paralell stories of three men: David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) a police detective who's assignment to a single killing ends up turning him into law-enforcement's "face" in the Zodiac killings, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) a San Fransisco Chronicle crime reporter who chases the Zodiac story for the glory and finds himself perhaps too close, and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) a Chronicle cartoonist who's at first mainly involved because his skill at cypher-cracking finally gets him invited to the "big kids table" (or, rather, the local watering hole) with the "real" reporters but eventually became the most obsessed Zodiac-hunter of all; penning the two highly-regarded books on which the film is based.
One by one, we watch as all three men are consumed by their connection to Zodiac. Avery, already a self-destructive drunk and cocaine early-adopter, leaps into the fray for the glory and finds himself drained all the quicker: Threatened by name in a Zodiac letter, inspiring local journalists to don "I'm Not Avery" buttons, he sinks into his own abyss like only Robert Downey Jr. can - embodying a man who seems to throw his life away on Zodiac because Zodiac was the most opportune thing to throw it away on at the time.
Inspector Toschi, on the other hand, just wants to find the guy and be done with it. He didn't bargain on having to chase down something thats more like a ghost than a man. One moment he's with the first team on the scene of what looks like a simple robbery/homicide, the next moment "Zodiac" is ritualistically knifing a couple in the park dressed up like a C-list supervillian in a black hood and a chest-logo jumpsuit. The world is spinning out of control with a killer who may not even fully "exist" at the wheel, and everyone is ready to blame him. At one point, Toschi is horrified to find himself watching the big new movie, "Dirty Harry," and realizing that the film is (and really was) a fanciful vision of "super-cop" taking down a Zodiac-style madman singlehandedly. This, he acknowledges, is a sign that he's already lost: The movies already making "what-if?" fantasies out of it.
And then there's Graysmith. At first, he's just thrilled that his skill with puzzles and codes makes the other reporters and editors notice him. Watch how forlorn he looks, gazing longingly into the smoky bar where all the "big guys" head after work without ever inviting him... and then how elated he is later when Avery asks him to come along as discuss Zodiac. Soon the case overtakes and defines him, even as it becomes less and less clear what if anything he's actually contributing: "The cartoonist who's investigating Zodiac" is his whole identity, and we watch as that identity enamors him to a nice girl (Chloe Sevigny) only to eventually pervade and ruin their marriage.
Through this we come to understand, maybe a little better than the real Graysmith may like, why it had to be him who probably came the closest to identifying and naming the "real" Zodiac: Outside of the case, Toschi had his future and his wife; Avery had his chosen descent into alchoholic oblivion... but if not Zodiac, what was Graysmith's purpose, all that time? In an amazing scene in the 3rd Act - which chiefly concerns Graysmith's year's-later marathon of independent detective work that led to the book and what it's author believes is the likeliest suspect for - Graysmith confronts a next-to-last step witness and nearly breaks down when they fail to give the name he was sure they'd give. He begins to plead, insisting that they just say the damn name... and it becomes apparent that he's beginning to not even care if he gets the right ending, so long as it's finally an ending.
There's a temptation when one is making one of these "period" detective stories, especially when the period pre-dates the seismic shift that led to our "digital" world, to dwell on the quaint romance of the era; especially when all that procedure and evidence hunting and good ol' fashioned gumshoe work is literally all one has to construct a movie out of. Indeed, Fincher hits all the stylistic and mood notes he needs to: He "gets" the aura of clacking typewriters, shuffling papers and thin haze of cigarette smoke that defines every interior of the time, the muted earth tones and pastels of 70s urban interior-design and the expectedly-classy arrangement of era-appropriate classic songs pulse at the margins of the soundtrack like a chorus unto themselves - Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" has never seemed so eerie.
But Fincher and the film are also up to throwing a curveball on the period-detail side, undercutting the romanticism of the trappings with a rising drumbeat of hindsight critique: The film effectively does for the trendy romanticism of analog-era police work what "Letters From Iwo Jima" did for the romanticism of the Japanese WWII honor-culture; going behind the details to strip away the mythos. Sure, it's nostalgiac to look back on the days when cracking the case was about file-hunting, smoky meetings, worn-out shoes and the rush to find a phone in time... but "Zodiac" also effortlessly reminds us of what a pain in the ass it must've been, too. In one tour-de-force piece of editing, the film lets us watch as multiple police bereaus try to coordinate their investigations, none of them on the same page and some clearly not interested in ever being so. It's almost astounding to be reminded that a mere two decades ago something as vital as handwriting or fingerprint analysis was still accomplished by taking sample pages to the offices of an aged scholar and his magnifying glass.
I can't imagine many audiences being able to watch it and not be overwhelmed by the unstated but undeniable notion of how "easy" it would seem to be to catch this creature in our age of DNA, digital analysis and "C.S.I." In the theater I sat near a group of young women (older teens, I'd guess) and during the first drawn-out murder sequence one of them was heard to ask "why don't they call someone!?," only to audibly gasp a moment later upon realizing the problem with her question. It almost seems to suggest that Zodiac "himself" could only ever have existed under these conditions, rising from the darkness just at the point when society was starting to move faster than it's ability to transfer information.
"Zodiac" is a long, dark and deliberate movie; but it's also riveting, fascinating and crammed with great performances and richly-textured direction. It's the best new movie you can see in theatres, right now. Highly, highly reccomended.
FINAL RATING: 10/10