ZODIAC (2007) Reviews and overview of David Fincher’s cult classic

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‘There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer’

Zodiac is a 2007 mystery crime feature film about a San Francisco cartoonist who becomes obsessed with tracking down the Zodiac Killer.

Directed by David Fincher (Gone Girl; Fight Club; Se7en; Alien³) from a screenplay written by James Vanderbilt (Scream 5; Independence Day: Resurgence; The Amazing Spider-Man and sequel; Darkness Falls), based on Robert Graysmith’s book, the movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Brian Cox.


Zodiac is a 2007 true-crime thriller (directed by David Fincher, written by James Vanderbilt). It follows investigations into notorious San Francisco serial murders in the 1960s and 70s, from the unlikely point-of-view of a San Francisco Chronicle newspaper cartoonist who became a self-styled (if not genuinely obsessed) expert on the so-called Zodiac Killer.

Supersized-long at 144 minutes, detailed in a chronology spanning about thirty years, Zodiac is a homicide procedural-cum psychodrama about the Zodiac-Killer murders that rocked San Francisco in the late 1960s/early 1970s. These indeterminate number of Bay-Area slayings provided Hollywood and genre filmmakers with inspiration for boogeyman-bad guys and slashers, starting with `Scorpio,’ the clean-cut, utterly unmotivated psychopath/rapist/slayer in Clint Eastwood’s first Dirty Harry (1971) policier, right up to the more slasher-esque Awakening the Zodiac in 2017. The case has transfixed assorted crime buffs and true-horror fans over the decades for its bizarre (possibly imaginary) clues and an ever-roiling suspect pool.

Zodiac itself adapts of a 1986 true-crime memoir by Robert Graysmith. This author was more than just an observer; he was a key player in the investigation (or so the film/book deal would have it).

Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a humble San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist more Jimmy Olsen than Clark Kent (even if he is a divorced single father to two kids). Graysmith is at work when letters to the Chronicle arrive, Jack-the-Ripper style, as gloating personal communications from a maniac who lethally shot an adulterously dating couple in Vallejo, California, on July 4, 1969.

The self-proclaimed Zodiac sends newspapermen messages in a symbol-alphabet code, kills again in a bizarre, occultish black-masked disguise, threatens large-scale mayhem with bombs and school buses, and – live on local TV – telephones showboating celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (whom, dialogue notes, had just done a guest bit on the original Star Trek). Nevertheless, the Zodiac remained stubbornly uncaught.

Graysmith, believing his artistic savvy gives him Da Vinci Code-esque insights into the killer’s use of graphics, gets absorbed in the mystery, sharing thoughts with flamboyant, alcoholic crime journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and, soon, hounding the SFPD homicide officer (Mark Ruffalo) on the case. As years pass and taunting Zodiac letters and puzzles trail off, Graysmith continues the hunt, even as it overwhelms his new marriage and personal life.

If this were fiction, the predictable `shock’ ending would mandate the boyish Graysmith turn out to be Zodiac himself. But it’s a true story. Despite the sense of some self-serving mythologizing going down (Bob Graysmith: Cartoonist Detective, anybody?), Zodiac is an atmospheric, noteworthy item coming from director David Fincher, who made his serial killer cachet in Se7en.

Instead of MTV cinematography and teen-appeal gore, he unrolls the saga of a search for justice growing stifling and unhealthy using a straightforward manner that would befit a (briefly) grownup Hollywood cinema in the Zodiac’s own early 1970s – think Francis Ford Coppola, perhaps, circa The Conversation. That morally muddled era is impeccably recreated down to the regrettable fashion choices, fondue parties, and movies concerned with solid characterization, dialogue and narrative intricacies.

We see the pre-Watergate spheres of journalism and the police assisting each other and, occasionally, getting tangled up in their own agendas and bureaucratic snafus (San Francisco constables enjoy receiving a modern communications device called a “telefax” but can’t send any faxes out because nobody else can receive one).

As the running time gets top-heavy and Graysmith runs down maddening false leads and rabbit holes, Zodiac starts resembling acclaimed true-crime documentaries like the Paradise Lost trilogy – true stories where justice wasn’t served, clues amounting to an existential tangle that is no satisfactory answer, and from which invested parties just cannot disentangle themselves.

When Graysmith finally sort-of confronts an aged, nondescript store clerk who might-have-been the Zodiac, with no particular consequences whatsoever, that is the muted sort-of closure to one of crime’s most infamous modern cases, take it or leave it.

Offscreen, Graysmith went on to write several more true-crime books (one purporting to unmask the Zodiac, another the same with the Ripper). Meanwhile, a recent theory out is that there actually was no single Zodiac Killer, just assorted marauders and copycats who claimed the credit in the media (such a composite, virtually imaginary homicidal maniac most likely explains an uncaught character in gruesome New Orleans crime annals, the Axman).

The Zodiac deluxe two-disc Blu-ray from Paramount claims to a “Director’s Cut” (only about five minutes longer than the release version) but has a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, all the better to hear the Donovan standard “Hurdy Gurdy Man” as a disquieting closing theme (cementing an unstated but inescapable Manson-like notion of San Francisco’s Sixties love and flower-child optimism all gone bad). It’s also got razor-clean images (Fincher shot using a cutting-edge Viper digital-video camera) and lots of extras.

A pair of commentaries are included on disc one, the first with director Fincher. The other has actors Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr., producer Brad Fischer, writer James Vanderbilt – and, no, not Graysmith but crime-fiction author James Ellroy. A few making-of featurettes are included as well. And, for those viewers who want to be-Bob-Graysmith-in-Your-Own-Living-Room, a subset of extras called “The Facts” present authentic Zodiac Killer histories, interviews, maps, crime scenes and suspects.

Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA

Other reviews:

“Fincher gives us times, days and dates at the bottom of the screen, which serve only to underline how the case seems to stretch out to infinity. There is even time-lapse photography showing the Transamerica building going up. Everything leads up to a heart-stopping moment when two men look, simply look, at one another. It is a more satisfying conclusion than Dirty Harry shooting Zodiac dead, say, in a football stadium.” Roger Ebert

“Put your whodunit expectations away when you visit Zodiac. It’s the process that pins you to your seat. A film this painstaking and tenacious won’t appeal to those in it strictly for the blood lust. Fincher is a powerhouse filmmaker, but he doesn’t pander. He hakes you up in ways you don’t see coming.” Rolling Stone

“In its final stretch, as it zeroes in on the processes of a single consciousness,
Zodiac, that endlessly resonant glyph, functions as a movie about its own process. Graysmith’s obsession is mirrored in Fincher’s; the movie soldiers on, accumulating still more facts, unearthing new connections, pushing deeper into the labyrinth, chasing the ghost.” The Village Voice

Cast and characters:

Jake Gyllenhaal … Robert Graysmith
Mark Ruffalo … Inspector David Toschi
Anthony Edwards … Inspector William Armstrong
Robert Downey Jr. … Paul Avery
Brian Cox … Melvin Belli
John Carroll Lynch … Arthur Leigh Allen
Richmond Arquette … Zodiac 1 / Zodiac 2
Bob Stephenson … Zodiac 3
John Lacy … Zodiac 4
Chloë Sevigny … Melanie
Ed Setrakian … Al Hyman
John Getz … Templeton Peck
John Terry … Charles Thieriot
Candy Clark … Carol Fisher
Elias Koteas … Sgt. Jack Mulanax
Dermot Mulroney … Captain Marty Lee
Donal Logue … Captain Ken Narlow
June Diane Raphael … Mrs Toschi (as June Raphael)
Ciara Moriarty … Darlene Ferrin (as Ciara Hughes)
Lee Norris … Young Mike Mageau
Patrick Scott Lewis … Bryan Hartnell
Pell James … Cecilia Shepard
Philip Baker Hall … Sherwood Morrill
David Lee Smith … Father
Jason Wiles … Lab Tech Dagitz
Charles Schneider … Cabbie / Paul Stine
James Carraway … Shorty
Tom Verica … Jim Dunbar
Jimmi Simpson … Mike Mageau
Doan Ly … Belli’s Housekeeper
Karina Logue … Woman
Joel Bissonnette … Inspector Kracke
Zach Grenier … Mel Nicolai
John Mahon … Riverside Captain
Matt Winston … John Allen
Jules Bruff … Catherine Allen
John Ennis … Terry Pascoe
J. Patrick McCormack … Police Commissioner
Adam Goldberg … Duffy Jennings
James Le Gros … Officer George Bawart
Charles Fleischer … Bob Vaughn
Clea DuVall … Linda del Buono (as Clea Duvall)
Paul Schulze … Sandy Panzarella
Adam Trese … Detective #1
Penny Wallace … Mulanax’s Secretary
John Hemphill … Donald Cheney
Michel Francoeur … Man on Marquee
Thomas Kopache … Copy Editor #1
Barry Livingston … Copy Editor #3
Christopher John Fields … Copy Editor #4 (as Christopher Fields)

Technical details:

157 minutes | 162 minutes (director’s cut)
Aspect ratio: 2.40: 1
Audio: SDDS | Dolby Digital | DTS


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