Fans of director David Fincher’s visceral thriller, “Seven,” will find few similarities between it and his latest, the pensive “Zodiac.” The film is based on the real-life serial killer that terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area during the ’60s and ’70s.
“Zodiac” begins familiarly enough. A young couple celebrates the Fourth of July on lover’s lane only to be viciously attacked by a gun-wielding psychopath. It’s the subject of urban legend and Hollywood slasher fare, but Fincher is not interested in racking up a high body count or depicting mangled corpses. The attack is presented swiftly and without gratuity (chillingly scored with Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”).
The engaging title sequence features Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice,” which drives a series of shots that track the movement of a mysterious envelope through the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle. The envelope, which contains a message and a cipher from the killer, draws the attention of cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and crime journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.).
The next murders are depicted in rapid succession. The first takes place at a lake in broad daylight, where an armed individual approaches a young couple with the intention of stealing their money. Similar to the film’s opening attack, Fincher creates tension by keeping his camera focused on the victims as they slowly realize what is in store. The next murder prompts the involvement of inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).
James Vanderbilt’s screenplay disjointedly jumps from journalistic pursuit to police procedural. Graysmith drops out of the film, while the killer, who calls himself the Zodiac, assaults the inspectors with numerous clues and letters.
Meanwhile, conflicting jurisdictions and dead-end leads hound Toschi and Armstrong. A thrilling interrogation is shot in almost all close-ups, as is most of the film, with actors occasionally looking directly into the camera to further emphasize the internal turmoil of the investigators.
Humor keeps audiences interested in the midst of the investigative minutia. The bickering between Avery (Downey at his most quirky and decadent) and Toschi results in good laughs. When asked by reporters if he has considered Avery as a prime suspect, Toschi quips, “More than once.”
As Toschi and Armstrong fade from the picture, and Avery succumbs to drugs and alcohol, audiences are asked to reunite with Graysmith as he doggedly picks up the investigation. Graysmith is driven by an insatiable need to finish the case and confront the killer. Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith with a tired franticness: a man desperate for answers.
Fincher sprinkles several film references throughout “Zodiac.” Toschi watches “Dirty Harry” (which was loosely based on the Zodiac case), and he is disillusioned by the overblown Hollywood interpretation. And “The Most Dangerous Game” proves to be an important element in Graysmith’s investigation.
The production design, with its earthy greens and yellows, and Harris Savides’ crisp high-definition photography evoke the sociopolitical thrillers of the period, such as “All the President’s Men” and “Dog Day Afternoon.”
Much has been made of Fincher’s tenacity and perfectionism on set, sometimes requiring up to 70 takes from his actors. Given his methodical style and the use of cinematic allusions, it seems that “Zodiac” is a deeply personal project for the director — a film about obsession, unanswered questions and demons that gnaw and fester within.
“Zodiac” was written by James Vanderbilt and directed by David Fincher.
“Zodiac” received 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.