In the last act of Zodiac, disgraced, alcoholic reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey) spitefully dismisses the fruitless investigation into one of the most notorious serial killers of the 20th century. “He offed a few citizens, wrote a few letters, then faded into footnote.” Like the mysterious killer, David Fincher’s 2007 thriller (which he considers to be his finest film) caused a lot of fuss then seemed to fade away. Why this happened is a mystery in itself; a likely factor though is its admittedly daunting running time. However Fincher earns every last frame of that 162 minutes. Painstaking attention to detail seems to be the aim here, as the film seems to cram as much information about the case into that time as it can. It is undoubtedly fascinating; the first half of the film draws us into the enthralling case; like the protagonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), we become obsessed with finding the answers.
However, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt aren’t interested in merely reconstructing the murders and providing speculation as to who was responsible. There’s something more human at the centre, and debatabley more interesting, something that elevates it above a by-the-numbers serial killer film: what we have is a film not about a serial killer but about the dangers of obsession as Graysmith ultimately isolates himself from the world in his quest to solve the case. We can’t help but sympathise with Graysmith, even as he pushes away his own family to chase up leads to solve a mystery everyone else has given up on. Part of this is down to the fact that we too share his passionate desire for closure, for resolution. But Gyllenhaal’s performance should not be overlooked. Graysmith’s boy-scout like search for the truth requires a convincing and layered performance in order to make him interesting. Without such a performance he’d just be a bland do-gooder surrounded by the more interesting personalities of Downey Jr and Mark Ruffallo (pre-avengers). However Gyllenhaal nails the intriguing mix of boyish naivety and troubling obsession ensuring that Graysmith himself is both a suitable surrogate for us in his investigation, but also a compelling character in his own right. By the time his stability has degraded so far that he treats one character with hostility for not providing him the information he wants, we realize just how far obsession can take you. The character always holds onto the core idealism that he started out with, when asked why he’s still searching for the truth he replies “because no-one else will”, he doesn’t seem to understand how to give up, and why everyone else has, and in this he is hard not to pity.
Beyond Gyllenhaal, the rest of the cast provide incredible supporting performances. Mark Ruffallo gives an assured and understated work as the detective assigned to the case; his dry banter with his partner Armstrong (Anthony Edward) consistently amuses whenever the density of the plot threatens to overwhelm. Meanwhile Robert Downey Jr plays himself albeit in a less glamorous way than when he’s doing so as Tony Stark (not that that’s a bad thing any way). One thing that many critics have neglected to notice is how funny the film is. It’s not going to have you rolling around the floor in hysterics but its witty, snappy dialogue is quotable and also pokes fun of some of the unbelievable (yet worryingly accurate) aspects of the true story.
No film in the director’s impressive filmography feels more Fincher-like. In searching for a film that does you could point to the oppressive darkness of Seven, the cynical wit of The Social Network or to the black humour of Fight Club. Yet Zodiac encompasses all of Fincher’s thematic interests (violence, crime, and the struggle to find one’s place in modern society) and showcases his signature style in a story that is surprisingly personal for the director. His in depth knowledge of the facts of the narration (made obvious in the bonus features) is startlingly reminiscent of Graysmith’s in the film. What this adds up to is a film that Fincher poured not only his technical and creative skills into, but also one where he most expertly exhibits his story telling skills. Add to that a cool, period soundtrack and Zodiac emerges not only as one of the most underrated films of the last decade, but also as one of the best.
Zodiac (2007), directed by David Fincher, is released on Blu-ray disc and DVD in the UK by Warner Home Video, Certificate 15.