Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this chilling 2007 thriller as real-life San Francisco newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who becomes an amateur detective obsessed with tracking down the 1970s Zodiac serial killer who taunts police and the press with his letters and cryptic messages.
The Zodiac killer is the one they used as the prototype for the fictional Dirty Harry (1971), which used the real killer’s threat to kill all the kids on a school bus as one of its main action scenes. Zodiac has as one of its scenes hero Graysmith going to see Dirty Harry. He even first meets the cop on the case in the cinema foyer, and the cop later calls him Dirty Harry. How neat is that? Too clever? No, not at all.
James Vanderbilt’s lightly fictionalised screenplay does a grand job of turning Graysmith’s book into an effective screenplay, with much wit and wisdom, as well as dry or dark humour along the way. Grim though the story is, the film keeps it obsessively watchable, enlightening and entertaining. It ensures that the viewer is hooked on the on the story and finding out its outcome, just like the hero is.
Director David Fincher admirably keeps the movie pacing briskly along in a series of bravura-staged eerie or scary set pieces. The incisive editing, the Sixties soundtrack and vintage-style score, and the impeccable period production help to add up to one impressive movie.
The heroes here are Harris Savides for Cinematography, David Shire for score, Angus Wall for film editing, Donald Graham Burt for Production Design, Keith Cunningham for Art Direction, and Victor Zolfo for Set Direction.
The performances are all first class, with the young Gyllenhaal at his most appealing as an eager-beaver, boy scout (well, Eagle Scout first class) kind of kid, whose obsession ruins his life, career and marriage (to Melanie) and just won’t let go. He is the real-life equivalent to Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet.
Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr are also outstanding as the cop on the case Inspector David Toschi, and the San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery. They are the star support performances to Gyllenhaal but they make a genuine, memorable impression, settling deep into their characters. All three main characters look lived-in, look real. They look tired, frustrated, exasperated, angry, worn-out. They bring a lot to the table.
In character support, it is easy to admire the performances of Chloë Sevigny as troubled, sulky, sullen wife Melanie, John Carroll Lynch as smug prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen and Elias Koteas as police Sergeant Jack Mulanax. Also notable are Donal Logue as police Captain Ken Narlow, Philip Baker Hall as writing expert Sherwood Morrill, and Charles Fleischer as creepy cinema owner Bob Vaughn.
It’s an episodic, and then, and then film built of the building blocks of scenes and characters, rambling over years and years. It mirrors real life, but with all the boring bits taken out, 20 years compressed into a fast moving 157 minutes. How good is that! Some will find it frustrating that is does not run like a fictional movie story, and fight the time lapses and all the title explaining where and when we are. If you make up a story, it does not run like Zodiac. But go with the flow, and it’s a pretty well near-great movie.
Unfortunately, the real-life story and therefore the film doesn’t have the ending you quite expect it will have. It is messy, inconclusive and yes unsatisfying. But it turns out the movie hasn’t been about the identity of the Zodiac killer after all. It’s all about Graysmith and his obsession and its consequences. He is the star of his own film, not Mr Zodiac.
© Derek Winnert 2016 Classic Movie Review 4715
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