“I need to know who he is. I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it's him.” Robert Graysmith
I have long debated about including this movie on my greatest list but after much deliberation I have decided it is so well made and expertly crafted it deserves a place on my list. Along with my #12 film BOUND, this film could possibly me the least seen and/or heard of on my list. I have paired this film with JFK, which is #10 of my list, because both films have a great deal in common. They both deal with unsolved murders from the 60’s and deal with the obsession of those that are leading the investigations to bring the killer(s) to justice.
The film starts with something only a movie geek like me would notice and that that the Paramount and WB studio logos are those that were used in the 60’s. The opening shot to the film is impressive as we follow a car down a neighborhood street but the point of view is from the driver who is looking out the passenger window. Here we are introduced to the 2nd couple who are attacked by the Zodiac killer. Director David Fincher wisely does not show us the first murder that occurred in December of 68 since there were no survivors to this attack. The other encounters with the Zodiac are based on witness accounts. Fincher makes the choice to present the Zodiac with different physical shapes and voices since the he is based on the perception of the surviving witnesses. The first attack features the song HURDY GURDY MAN" and I only mention it because it will come into play later in the film.
Although Fincher is dealing with grim material he does an excellent job at keeping the film visually interesting. After the opening sequence he shows his directorial flair by tracking the path of the Zodiac’s first letter that he writes to the San Francisco Chronicle from the mail truck to the mail room to the editor’s desk. It seems like a simple sequence but it’s actually a brilliant technical achievement and its little touches like that keep this three hour film engaging. Now one would figure that since the movie is about the Zodiac it would be an extremely violent film and that assumption would be incorrect. Fincher wisely front loads the film with the violence, leaving the rest of the film to deal with the aftermath of the murders and the decades long investigation into the identity of the killer. The second attack is probably the most creepy and violent of all of the Zodiac’s attacks. A couple is having a picnic at Lake Berryessa in Napa County, Ca when they are approached by a hooded man carrying a gun. He calmly approaches them and has the couple tie each other’s hands behind their backs. The way Fincher shoots this scene is in a normal matter of fact way. The scene is not scored or flashy in any way and there are not many cuts that you would normally see in a film of this type. The actual attack, which is done by knife, is both brutal and realistic but not gory and it is one of the best scenes in the film.
In films that take place over long span of time, 22 years in this specific case, there are usually scenes that show the passage of time and there are three such scenes in this film. The first sequence showcases the different letters that the Zodiac writes to the Chronicle. At first we see them on the paper and then we see the letters on physically on the screen itself and these letters, numbers and symbols are literally and symbolically consume the lead characters. The second sequence features time lapse footage of the completion of the top portion of the Transamerica building in San Francisco. Again it a simple scene but it is a unique way of showing the passage of time. The final, and in my opinion, the best sequence was originally deleted from the theatrical version but can be seen on the director’s cut DVD/Blu-Ray. The scene begins with a black screen and we then hear different soundbites from items in the news and songs from the period. If anyone has seen the movie Contact this scene is very similar to the opening of that film. Since the scene is set over a black screen this would symbolize that although the world is changing around our characters they are oblivious to it because of their obsession with the Zodiac.
I believe one of the reasons the film did not do as well at the box office as it should have is that most people probably assumed that the movie was about the Zodiac himself. The movie is actually about the three characters who in different ways and in different degrees become obsessed with solving the mystery of the identity of the Zodiac killer. The three characters are Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), a Chronicle crime reporter and Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a San Francisco police detective who is assigned to a seemingly unrelated crime but later it is discovered that is the work of the Zodiac. The story centers on the Graysmith character and although Jake Gyllenhaal is an actor that I like he is not an actor who can open a film. The films I have seen him in I have liked but I was surprised as how effective he is in this film. The character is essentially the audience’s guide through the film as the story is basically told his point of view. In order for the story to be effective we have to identify with him in some way and then we will care about what he does and what happens to him. He starts out as an outsider in regards to his investigation and believes that he can solve the mystery of the code and symbol filled letters that the Zodiac writes to the newspaper. He does not but becomes deeper involved in the investigation in an unofficial capacity. Graysmith is the classic everyman character once played by the likes of Jimmy Stewart. It is not a negative statement when I say that he’s performance is not Oscar worth because frankly it’s just not that kind of role. Gyllenhaal plays the character as an uninteresting guy and any attempt to make him anything more than that would have been a mistake. Sometimes actors have a hard time playing “normal” but here Gyllenhaal is perfect. A better known actor such as Leonardo DiCaprio probably could have put butts in the seats but I believe that Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast in the role.
Mark Ruffalo is another actor I like and as with Gyllenhaal he is not an actor that people will flock to the cinema to see but he is one of our best actors working today. Odds are you have probably recently seen him as Bruce Banner/The Hulk in THE AVENGERS films but if you haven’t seen THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT add that to your must see list. His role as Detective Toschi is unique in the sense that typically in these types of films it is usually the detective that is the focus of the movie. However his role serves as counterbalance for the Graysmith character. He does not appreciate having to “share” his investigation with the outsiders but because the Zodiac is only writing letters to the Chronicle he does not have a choice. Ruffalo effectively brings an aura of world weariness to his role and we really get the since that he is a good detective but has grown tired of seeing what worst of mankind. Ruffalo is an interesting actor to watch because even when he is not speaking you understand that there is something just bubbling under the surface. He brings just enough goofy charm to role and it’s effective because his is not playing a typical movie cop. He is believable every step of the way. It’s hard to believe that the real life person he is playing was the inspiration behind Steve McQueen’s Bullitt. Like Gyllenhaal his performance is not showy at all but he is just as effective in playing this character as a real person. Although it is his job to be obsessed, he is able to recognize that the obsession cannot take over his life as it has done to Graysmith. Ruffalo’s performance maybe one of the most realistic portrayals of a policeman ever put on the screen.
Robert Downey Jr. is the latest comeback kid in Hollywood and it is justly deserved. Prior to him becoming a punch line in Hollywood his filmography is loaded with good movies. From his brief supporting roles in 80’s classics WEIRD SCIENCE and BACK TO SCHOOL, to his unforgettable performance as, of all things a drug addict, in the criminally underrated LESS THAN ZERO, he has been one of Hollywood’s most reliable actors. His current roles in 2 film franchises show that he is an actor that people like and want to see. Although I am not a fan of SHERLOCK HOLMES series, he is always a fun actor to watch on screen. No matter what the role he always seems like he is having a good time. His role as news reporter Paul Avery is no exception. As with Graysmith and Toschi, Avery is based on a person real character and Downey effortlessly brings him to life. I do not know much about the real Avery but if he was as funny and witty and he is portrayed in the film then he must have been a fun guy to be around. Downey brings much humor to role but it doesn’t seem inappropriate. From his very first introduction he is presented as smart but also very arrogant and sarcastic. In a way this role and performance is very similar to his role as Tony Stark aka Iron Man. He brings humor to every scene that he is in be it a look, a gesture or a line reading. Perhaps Fincher knew that his film needed some lighter moments and that’s why Downey was cast but whatever the reason Downey is perfect in the film. I don’t want to overstate and make you think that he is giving a comedic performance because that is not the case.
So why am I giving praise to this film so much so that it has made its way onto my greatest of all-time list. In a previous article, THE MIND OF A CRITIC I discussed what I look for when I am watching a film. The first thing I try to determine is does the film work in the genre that it is in. In this case it is a thriller so I ask myself does it “thrill”. The answer is yes so not only does it work but it a superior entry in the genre. There is a scene towards the end of the film that is so intense that it should be studied as to how to expertly shoot and edit a scene of suspense in a motion picture. The second aspect I take into consideration is the story. In this case there isn’t really a story since this is based on real events however the subject matter is presented in such an interesting way that the viewer, like the characters, become intrigued and involved with the central aspect of the story and that is who is the Zodiac. I will never reveal whether or not that question is answered you will just have to see for yourself. The third aspect I take into the consideration are the characters in the film. Well I just detailed the three leads so it’s obvious that I liked all three characters in the film any one of them could be the focus of the film.
Director David Fincher’s ZODIAC is an expertly crafted and well-acted docudrama. It does not have the political aspirations of JFK but the two films are very similar. Fincher is one of my favorite directors. He has made 9 films including FIGHT CLUB, SE7EN, THE SOCIAL NETWORK and GONE GIRL and they are all excellent films. I highly recommend PANIC ROOM if you have not seen that one as well. Here Fincher takes what could have been an average run of the mill movie about a serial killer and turns the genre on its head by going against the grain of what audiences expect. You would think that the film would end with a bang but in some respects it does. When the credits roll at the end to sounds of “HURDY GURDY MAN” it is a bang but I think many viewers may not understand why. It’s one of several reasons why I love this film. ZODIAC earns its place on my list and when you see I hope you will feel the same.