David Fincher has the market cornered on being stylishly creepy. With movies like “Se7en” and “Panic Room” to his credit, the director can turn out a taut genre film and then elevate it by layering the movie with his distinctive directorial style. So with this pedigree, it would seem a perfect fit for Fincher to take on the story of the Zodiac Killer, one of the most enigmatic (and unsolved) serial killer cases in American history.
Fincher delivers with “Zodiac,” and although it’s not as flashy as his previous films, he still produces an engrossingly methodical look at the hunt for this real-life killer. We see the case through the eyes of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a mildly geeky political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who finds himself on the sidelines of the case.
It’s the late ’60s when the killer starts offing couples on lovers’ lanes and then begins sending coded messages to the newspaper. The case becomes a sensation and whips the entire city into a paranoid frenzy. Graysmith becomes fascinated with the case and is constantly lurking around lead reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), trying to snatch up any new details he can about the killer.
Also on the case are inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) who not only have to sort through the puzzling clues left by the Zodiac killer but also the thousands of tips called in by a panicked populace.
The case takes many strange twists and turns and the years peel off the screen. With no arrests and few promising leads, interest in the case dies down, but not before it exacts a heavy toll on the men closest to it. Thanks to obsession, Avery becomes a drunken recluse, and Toschi, a once shining star in the department, finds himself jockeying a desk.
But Graysmith remains fixated on the murders and begins his own investigation after everyone else has thrown in the towel. It soon becomes apparent after nosing around that he’s getting close, so close in fact he begins to wonder if he might be the killer’s next victim.
What’s interesting about “Zodiac” is that the first half of the movie, which depicts the height of the investigation with the mysterious codes and graphic recreations of the murders, is actually the blandest part of the film. The story is very procedural and feels like little more than a well-made episode of “CSI.” One gets the impression that Fincher is a bit handcuffed by the facts of the case and labors a bit by trying to present the events as they actually happened.
It’s not until Graysmith starts Scooby-Doo-ing around that the movie takes off and Fincher gets to play around a bit by ratcheting up the suspense and peeling back the layers of the mystery. The movie reaches a satisfying conclusion and also winds up being a fascinating study of paranoia and obsession, to boot.
The performances are excellent across the board. Gyllenhaal does a good job of underplaying Graysmith and trying to stay out of the way of the story until he gets swept up in it. Downey Jr. was solid as usual, although he must be getting tired of playing characters who wind up disheveled and drugged out. Although I guess you play what you know. It’s also nice to see Edwards doing good work again after being off the radar for a while after his years on “ER.”
But ultimately this movie bears the mark of its director and it is clear that this was a labor of love for Fincher. He takes his time, immersing us in the case so that we get swallowed up by the mystery along with the characters. And while he pretty much plays it straight, stylistically, he still pulls some nifty tricks in showing the passage of time and the omnipresence of symbols.
There is something darkly captivating about serial killers that stirs a primal response in all of us. The message of “Zodiac” is that this fascination can be almost as dangerous as the killer himself.
“Zodiac” is rated R for graphic violence, language, drug material, and brief sexual images.