David Fincher is in my relatively short list of favorite directors despite his rather small list of films to date. He is a master of mood and he knows what lighting and set professionals to work with to create these moods.
Unfortunately, Zodiac is all mood and little substance. Despite this, the film is two and a half hours long—Bilbo says before his birthday celebration in Fellowship of the Ring that he feels like butter spread too thin on a piece of bread; this is the problem with Zodiac
A killer that has not named himself yet sends a series of ciphers to, among other newspapers and law enforcement agencies, the San Francisco Chronicle. Cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes very interested in this because of the cipher (he is a puzzle lover). He forges a shaky then fairly strong relationship with the crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). They work together to try to solve the mystery. This is paralleled by three police partners in three different cities in California where the Zodiac killer picked his victims. David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are the San Francisco team and the most commonly shown. From 1970 through about 1974, the hunt for the Zodiac killer went from hot to lukewarm; from 1974 to 1983 (when the film concludes) solving it became the obsession of one man, Robert Graysmith.
The film used the real Robert Graysmith book as the armature to for the story, however, if you are not familiar with the Zodiac murders, this film is not going to further understanding, so if you are interested in it then read another book on the murders (or watch one of the A&E documentaries on the subject). If you are familiar with the story, the film is likely not going to please from a story perspective.
I can’t help but think that Mr. Graysmith is not all that different from Jim Garrison. Garrison was obsessed with the JFK assassination and came very late to the party, if you will, and had a political axe to grind; this makes anything he writes suspect. Mr. Graysmith was more closely involved in the Zodiac mystery, but there is no escaping that he was still too intimately involved in the subject (not to forget totally obsessed by it) that if you read his book, keep in mind that it is likely more personal memoir than history (that is how the movie plays out).
Potential spoilers for those who have little to no knowledge of the story
The only truly good thing about the movie is the mood. The connection to Se7en is obvious at times—dingy yellow lighting in most homes, lengthy moments in claustrophobic settings. Zodiac lacked the true grime and visceral fear of Se7en but the nature of the film makes it a mystery not a thriller. And it isn’t much of a mystery.
There is a rather large contingent of A- list actors. Among those already listed are: Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, and Dermot Mulroney. The performances are decent but nothing beyond that. I can’t blame the actors here because they have little to work with. Ultimately, I think this story was just a poor choice by Mr. Fincher.
The story is one of obsession. Robert Graysmith becomes so involved in trying to solve the crime that at one point in the film he enlists the aid of his two sons in collating and cross-checking data (they are interested in it, but it is still a mark of just how obsessed the cartoonist is). In this way, it passes into the absurd. The only difference between this obsession and the one in A Beautiful Mind is that Mr. Graysmith doesn’t, in fact, have a beautiful mind and cannot fall back on schizophrenia to explain his issues.
Serial killer movies generally revolve around the who and why rather than just the who. Zodiac is like Jack the Ripper in that there are favorite suspects for many different people, but there is no definitive answer. As far as film is concerned, compare From Hell with Zodiac.
In From Hell, there is almost as much analysis into why Jack commits his murders as there is to the search for who he is. Since you do not know whodidit the film or novel can only rely on the search for so long before it becomes stupid, so you need to focus on motive and psychology—these facets must also be part of the general story because if you cannot determine a likely motive, then you can never really set up a list of suspects.
Zodiac is only about the hunt. There is almost no attention given to motive or the psychology of the killer. The police collect literally tons of paper and information on many suspects, but they never try to explain why the killer kills. The only ‘theory’ is that the killer wants media attention. So Zodiac lacks any compelling story to keep a viewer interested. There is only one moment of fear and it turns out to be a red herring in search of a better mystery/thriller.
If watching people falling apart due to obsession is among your interests, then this will not disappoint. If this is not true for you, then don’t bother, just watch Se7en again, or get it if you haven’t seen it already.
What did you think of this review?