Good thing about terrible movies is that they make you appreciate well-made movies so much more. After sitting through the cinematic travesty of Catwoman, it was a pleasure to watch a film made by a director who knows exactly what they’re doing. I’m a huge fan of David Fincher and Zodiac was one of the two films of his I still haven’t seen; while I don’t love every single of his movies I always find them worth watching. He’s a marvellous stylist with an obsessive attention to detail, every shot in his films drips with confidence, he knows exactly where to point the camera in order to achieve this or that effect and make even a simple conversation scene feel thrilling, and I find his rather dark view of the world quite compelling. Zodiac is probably not going to be one of my favourite Fincher movies, simply because I naturally prefer character-based stories over the procedural ones, but I can still appreciate its excellence.
Zodiac is based on the real-life, unsolved “Zodiac” murders by a serial killer in 1960s California, who taunted the media and the police with letters and coded messages as he went through with his bloody work. The movie opens with one of the murders and has a few more brutal sequences later on, including a tense, stomach-turning almost-murder that was especially uncomfortable to watch. If this was a fictional thriller in the vein of Fincher’s own Seven, there’d probably be some unified pattern to the killings, like the astrological signs of the victims, but in real life the murders were completely random and the killer would lie down for months or years before striking again. The film spans 30 years, the fact Fincher accentuates by constantly giving us the dates and time of the events in the bottom half of the screen, and in the end the persistence and digging of the pursuers led to a convincing case against a man who was most likely guilty.
The said pursuers include a couple of journalists played by Robert Downey Jr and Jake Gyllenhaal; Downey Jr is Paul Avery, a crime reporter and a flamboyant chain-smoking alcoholic while Gyllenhaal is Robert Graysmith, a nerdy cartoonist whose obsessive interest in the Zodiac case ends up utterly consuming him at the expense of his wife and kids. On the police front, there are investigating officers David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). The cast does a rock-solid job, but as often the case with this type of story, it’s more about the mechanics of investigation rather than characters and their dynamics. The film does an admirable job of not getting lost in the labyrinth of facts, and telling this sprawling story in a clear-cut manner (it also helped a lot to have the subtitles on because this is not the sort of movie where you want to miss out on an important exchange of dialogue). It feels authentic in the way it sticks to the methodical gathering of facts and evidence, and following the proper steps and procedures, without any dramatic shoot-outs or a character who knows the truth but must fight the bad system to get it heard. It’s to Fincher and writer James Vanderbilt’s credit that they make this talky, detailed, long film feel so thrilling to watch.