Serial killers are some of the most fascinating figures in all of cinema. Norman Bates, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Hannibal Lecture, even John Doe (the nemesis featured in David Fincher’s Se7en) have all, for better or worse, been among the most popular movie characters. But this fascination the public has with serial killers is not limited to the cinema screen. Real life killers like Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, The Son of Sam, and The D.C. Sniper among countless others have all seeped into the public mindset, exiting and frightening the public at the same time.
Perhaps no unsolved criminal endeavor has troubled the masses more then that of the Zodiac killer. This legacy is mostly the result of self promotion on the killer’s part. Zodiac has only been positively linked to five murders. The Zodiac Killer used the press to create a creepy aura around his identity and has effectively made himself into a west coast boogieman for the last four decades. Charles Cullen killed eight times as many people, yet Zodiac has had five times as many movies made about him.
The latest of these cinematic representations of the infamous killer is David Fincher’s Zodiac, which tells the story of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who became obsessed with catching the serial killer and eventually wrote the book upon which Zodiac is based. The film also depicts David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) the detective investigating the killings, and Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) a reporter covering the murders.
David Fincher is probably the greatest director to emerge from the MTV rotation into feature films. How Fincher managed to beat the odds and become something greater then his legion of peers who seem unable to evolve past the over-edited, bombastic, and ultimately empty style that most music video directors embrace may remain a mystery, Zodiac in fact represents Fincher’s furthest departure from that sensibility thus far.
Don’t let the advertising fool you, Zodiac is no thriller. Early on there are scenes that will have you on the edge of your seat, but after the first forty minutes the film slows down and becomes a police procedural. Those going in expecting Se7en may be disappointed when they get All the President’s Men. Still, taken for what it is, Zodiac is a fairly impressive piece of work. It is probably best to go into the film with as little knowledge of the real Zodiac killer as possible, the film tells you everything you’ll need to know about the case and then some. By the end you feel like an expert about the case.
The film unfortunately is handicapped by its devotion to accuracy, like the real case, the film starts in a very frightening way and begins to get more down to earth as it goes on. The murder scenes are excellent and will likely be remembered as some of the best individual scenes of the year. The scenes without the killer are less consistent. The movie is at its weakest when it explores the personal lives of the investigators, the scenes with Chloë Sevigny as the long suffering wife of Graysmith are particularly problematic. For the most part however the actual investigation is very interesting.
Fincher’s entire crew is doing amazing work; the entire production is top notch. The script is somber without being pretentious; there are some genuinely funny moments to lighten the mood. Fincher does nothing to make me worried about his career, but I must say I wasn’t floored by the movie the way I have been by most of Fincher’s other works. It is mainly hurt by the fact that it is trying to be a cold methodical work of non-fiction, rather then a great page turning work of fiction. It’s too bad Fincher decided to go in such a strict factual direction, it means the film’s most interesting character has very little screen time. It also means that like the real case, the audience will never know if Graysmith was right. Still Fincher should be applauded for doing what few before him have done; he made a very good film about this most over hyped of killers.
***1/2 out of four