Zodiac, the new crime thriller from David Fincher (the director of Se7en and Fight Club) starts off on a strong note. It’s New Years Eve, 1969. A young couple is parked out on Lover’s Lane, alone. A car pulls up behind them, its driver hidden in the shadows. The car idles, waiting, and then drives off. The couple’s relief is palpable until a moment later, when the headlights of the car come back down the road. A man walks up to the window with a blinding flashlight. He pauses, peers inside and, without a word, starts shooting. It looks like we’ve met our Zodiac killer. It’s one of a few times he actually appears in a movie that revolves around him. By the end, though, it’s clear that the lack of a physical presence is beside the point. He’s been around all along, a corrosive force on everyone in the film, sapping them of their energy and spirit in their fruitless pursuit of a madman.
The film is adapted from the book by Robert Graysmith, who is also one of the central characters in the film. He gets sucked into the Zodiac case through his association with the San Francisco Chronicle, where he worked as an editorial cartoonist (and apparently was allowed far more access to editorial meetings than I would imagine). This connection to the real world is one the movie proudly trumpets, announcing its authenticity with the dubious distinction of having been “based on real events.”
After sitting for the entire 158 minutes of this film, I think that it (and the audience) might have been better served had Fincher, et al stuck to fiction. The film’s rigid adherence to the facts is more cumbersome than anything else — Zodiac seems to end around the ninety-minute mark, but then it basically starts all over again as Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhal) takes over the investigation after Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and the rest of the police have given up.
The interminable length of the film works to its detriment, as it makes the final revelations of the killer’s identity a moot point. The audience stops caring about whether Zodiac will be caught, in the same way as do almost all the people in the film. By the end of the film, it seems like a cruel joke has been perpetrated on the people who paid good money to watch it. No one came to see an existential treatise on crime and punishment from the director of Se7en. I want my villains brought to justice, damn it! If your movie focuses on the abysmal attempts to figure out the identity of a killer and failure to capture him, the people on his tail ought to be interesting enough to warrant the audience’s attention on their own. Otherwise,there’s not much of a movie, especially considering that this one is long enough to warrant an intermission or two.
Rather than a study of the criminal mind, Zodiac has become by — let’s say — its fourth act (most films have three acts, this one’s got about 8) a film focused on the obsessive nature of Graysmith. Unable to let Zodiac get away, he becomes unstable, risking his wife and family in trying to find a killer whose trail has long ago gone cold. For most of the movie, no explanation is given as to his motivation for maintaining such a dogged pursuit, except that he’s an Eagle Scout, fist class (apparently they love to fight crime). When the question is finally asked by his wife, Melanie (Chloe Sevigny), he responds that it if he forgets about the killer and gives up, then “no one else will do it.” Her reply (“That’s not good enough”) aptly sums up this writer’s feelings.
Whatever its faults, Zodiac has undeniable talent. Jake Gyllenhal perfects his manner of earnest credulousness as Robert Graysmith, and Robert Downey Jr. once again delivers a knock-out performance as Chronicle columnist Paul Avery. He is the only actor I have ever seen who manages to be dynamic and filled with tension while stationary. Brian Cox also makes a funny cameo as a publicity hound of a psychiatrist, while Dylan McDermott is a welcome addition as the beleaguered Chief of Police. It’s sad that these fine actors are put to use in such a mishmash of a movie.