Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Donal Logue, Chloe Sevigny,
Brian Cox, Philip Baker Hall
- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by David Medsker
t is to the great credit of “Zodiac” that they were able to wring any sort of tension out of a murder mystery that has never been solved. The problem is that the movie spends far too much time not solving the crimes. I overheard one of my peers calling the movie “necessarily long.” I’m assuming there was an ‘un’ in front of that that I simply didn’t hear.
The story begins in 1969, and Jake Gyllenhaal is Robert Graysmith, a rookie cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Robert starts working for the paper at the same time that a series of unsolved murders takes place around the Bay area, and he begins to follow the story with great interest after the killer writes a letter to the paper with instructions to run an enclosed cipher or he will kill again. (The cipher is eventually solved by a pair of retired teachers.) The writer assigned to cover the killer, who eventually calls himself the Zodiac, is renowned lush Paul Avery (a very funny Robert Downey Jr.). Robert makes somewhat of a pest of himself to pry information out of Paul about the Zodiac, whose elusiveness appeals to the puzzle solver in Robert. As the years pass, and the police are no closer to solving the case, Robert becomes obsessed with finding the Zodiac, much to the dismay of his wife (Chloe Sevigny) and Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who’s worked the case from the very beginning and doesn’t appreciate getting advice from a cartoonist.
If you’re expecting “Zodiac” to look like “Fight Club” or “Panic Room,” with the effects-laden pan shots and crazy room-to-room tracking shots, forget it. With the exception of one sequence that prints the Zodiac’s letters on the walls of the Chronicle – and, in a particularly impressive stunt, creates a false wall out of his words – the movie is surprisingly Fincher-less. Granted, there are still the telltale signs of his sensibilities (love the old school logos he used for Paramount and Warner Brothers in the beginning), but the proceedings are still very lo-fi by Fincher’s standards. The performances are quite good across the board, if a tad downplayed. Downey is the lone scene-stealer as the lovable drunk Avery.
Fincher’s direction, however, is not the problem here: the length is. James Vanderbilt’s script is exhaustively thorough, and that is where problems arise. As the story shifts focus from Paul to Robert, things get bogged down in minutiae, and two hours and 38 minutes of minutiae, to state the obvious, can get tedious. In the final moments (which take place in 1991), we get a late break in the case…and then the movie ends. Huh. Did they really need to include all of the scenes of Robert meeting up with the same police officials that Paul used to call on? Did he absolutely need to meet the creepy Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleisher)? The back half of the movie is less about the Zodiac than it is about Robert’s obsession with finding him, which may work as a character study but not as a movie intended to be a thriller.
For as much as there is to admire about “Zodiac,” there isn’t a whole lot to love. It’s exquisitely crafted, but unremarkable. Did we really lose five years of David Fincher’s life to this? Is a Nine Inch Nails video really the only great thing he's done in the last eight years? A pity, on both counts.
Two-Disc Director's Cut Blu-Ray Review:
The Blu-ray release of “Zodiac” may not contain any exclusive extras, but it still features all of the great bonus material that was included the first time around. Along with a director’s cut of the film, the first disc houses two excellent commentary tracks –the first by director David Fincher, and the second by stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., producer Brad Fischer, writer James Vanderbilt, and crime novelist James. Curiously, the second commentary track is a hybrid of recordings, as Gyllenhaal and Downey Jr. are clearly not in the same room as the other three, but it helps to keep things flowing when one group stops talking. Fincher isn’t so lucky, but his commentary is still worth listening to – especially considering he doesn’t show up in any of the interviews that appear on the set.
The rest of the special features appear on Disc Two. “Zodiac Deciphered” is an exhaustive making-of featurette that touches on the rumors of Fincher’s obsessive-compulsiveness (one scene, in which Gyllenhaal simply tosses aside a book, took 36 takes), “The Visual Effects of Zodiac” highlights the CGI blood, environments, and scene reconstructions that were digitally created, while “Previsualization” offers pre-viz segments for three of the film’s murder sequences. Rounding out the set are two series of interviews with real-life witnesses on the Zodiac’s different murders (“This Is the Zodiac Speaking”) and Arthur Leigh Allen (“Prime Suspect”), and while they may not be for everyone, diehard case theorists will eat it up.