Wow. I seriously cannot believe it is only March and I have already seen what is sure to be one the best movies of 2007. Currently, there are also several other new films in wide release that I am dying to see, although I can’t imagine that any of them could be as good. Still, I hope it a positive sign of how the year will turn out.
“Zodiac,” of course, tells the story of the famed Zodiac killer, who killed more than a couple dozen people in California’s Bay Area in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. He sent handwritten letters and coded messages to several area newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle. He was never caught, although the movie strongly suggests that police figured out the perpetrator might have been shortly before he dies of a heart attack in 1991.
David Fincher, the director of “Zodiac,” is known for making dark, violent and disturbing movies like “Se7en” and “Fight Club.” “Zodiac” is not exactly a walk in the park, but the violence isn’t really the point this time around. In fact, unlike “Se7en,” there is very little violence for a movie about a serial killer. What little violence there is is quick and effectively jarring. Fincher frames theses scary scenes around the murders instead of focusing squarely on them. He instead wrings every bit of tension out of the moments, creating a palpable sense of dread, sometimes in the dark and sometimes in broad daylight. In one scene, a romantic and secluded afternoon at the lake turns into a nightmare when the masked Zodiac arrives with a gun and a knife. The violence isn’t very graphic at all when compared to the horrible new standards set by the popular “Saw” movies and “The Passion of the Christ.”
Even though we do glimpse a few of the infamous murders, the movie isn’t really even about the Zodiac killer. It is instead about the obsessive nature he inspires in those who try to pursue him. When the first letters are sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, crime reporter Paul Avery (a pitch-perfect Robert Downey Junior) dives headfirst into the mess, getting excited about covering such unusual crimes. He makes an unexpected friend in a shy political cartoonist named Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has a strange interest in puzzles, making him a natural to obsess over the Zodiac’s codes.
Meanwhile, two San Francisco detectives, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are hot on the trail. Of course, every time the trail seems hot, it quickly fizzles. At first, the detectives form a comfortable rapport with Paul and Robert, but Paul manages to let his ego get in the way and angers them, as nosey reporters are want to do (wink).
“Zodiac,” boasts many things that make it a great movie. It’s got style to spare, but the visuals don’t ever take center stage as some Fincher films have done before (not that I ever had a problem with it). Its use of music is very effective, not only recreating the hippie era but also creeping us out, most notably with Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”
Perhaps most importantly, it’s that rare film where it’s hard to decide who gives the best performance. In fact it sometimes feels less like an ensemble film and more like the three leads taking turns carrying the movie. The first third feels dominated by Downey, with the middle spent almost catching the killer with Ruffalo and the final third taking us into the depths of Gyllenhaal’s yearning need to find out who the Zodiac is. This occurs despite the actors having an almost equal amount of screen time.
Even so, the movie belongs to Gyllenhaal. Of course, this is inevitable since the movie is mostly based on Robert Graysmith’s book. He lost his family and nearly lost his sanity while he compulsively burrowed into evidence and case files trying to write the thing.
Did I say the movie belonged to Gyllenhaal. Nah. It is entirely Fincher’s. In this age of the formulaic “CSI” and other cookie-cutter shows of its type, he achieves a miracle. He takes procedures, investigations and a heap of dialogue and turns it into a masterpiece that is ultimately about the human condition. Not to sound pretentious, but the Zodiac almost acts as a metaphor for that something we’re all searching for to make our lives whole. In a time of year typically dominated by pure dreck, you can’t ask for much more.
“Zodiac” is rated R. No one under 17 admitted without accompanying parent or adult guardian.