Between December 1968 and October 1969, a serial killer, who had dubbed himself the Zodiac, operated in Northern California, murdering a confirmed five people, though other potential victims have been proposed. Up until 1974, the killer continued to taunt police and the media with a series of gloating and threatening handwritten letters, in one of which he threatened to execute an entire bus-load of school children. The Zodiac seemingly derived his name from a brand of wristwatch, and his incentive to kill suggested by a cryptogram he sent along with one letter was taken from 'The Most Dangerous Game,' a famous short story from Richard Connell, in which a game hunter turns to hunting humans because they are the only quarry worthy of his skill. Despite the best efforts of the San Francisco Police Department, and others investigators such as author Robert Graysmith, the true identity of the elusive Zodiac remains, to this day, a mystery.
After the success of such films as 'Se7en,' 'Fight Club' and 'Panic Room,' director David Fincher has turned his sights away from straight thrillers and fallen upon Robert Graysmith's true-crime novel, 'Zodiac.' Adapted by James Vanderbilt, the film opens on July 4 1969, with the shooting of Michael Mageau (Lee Norris) and Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes) by a perpetrator who remains hidden in the shadows. After the killer sends a taunting letter to the 'San Francisco Chronicle', crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is assigned to follow the case, whilst newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes an active interest in the killer. After the Zodiac's fifth confirmed murder, of taxi driver Paul Lee Stine on October 11 1969, Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) of the SFPD attempts to trace the serial killer, his desire becoming an obsession that will later threaten to destroy his life.
It is possible that some viewers, expecting a slick and stylish Hollywood serial killer film, will be disappointed with 'Zodiac,' since Fincher has chosen to focus largely on how the hunt for the killer has destroyed the lives of those trying to bring him to justice. We linger on the victims themselves only briefly, and the homicides themselves are all orchestrated well before the mid-point of the film. By constantly reminding us that this is a true story, and by keeping the attention to detail as accurate as possible, Fincher has masterminded an entirely engrossing police procedural, in which the obsessive but futile search for the murderer is more absorbing than the murders themselves. With the real-life case being an unsolved mystery, the ending does not reach any solid conclusions on the identity of the killer, though, by laying out the evidence as it is, the film does manage to convey a certain sense of resolution, effectively avoiding the anti-climax that seemed almost inevitable. A meticulous recreation of the crime investigation, consisting largely of characters' personal and phone conversations, the film-making style of 'Zodiac' draws obvious parallels with such films as Alan J. Pakula's 'All the President's Men (1976),' of which Fincher confesses to being a fan.
The acting from everybody involved in 'Zodiac' proves a real asset. Downey Jr. is excellent as the sarcastic and darkly humorous reporter Paul Avery, who would later descend into worrying bouts of alcoholism. Mark Ruffalo, delivering perhaps the finest performance in the film, is perfect as David Toschi, who tried for many years, in vain, to bring the Zodiac to justice, the case threatening to consume his life. Jake Gyllenhaal, though perhaps lacking the presence of his co-stars, is notable as Robert Graysmith, whose fixation with the serial killer would lead him to write two best-selling non-fiction books on the subject, upon which this film was based.
John Carroll Lynch is disturbingly unsettling as Arthur Leigh Allen, the number one suspect for the murders, and the only person to have been seriously investigated by detectives. Despite being faced with seemingly damning amounts of circumstantial evidence, Allen vehemently denied being the Zodiac killer, and handwriting comparisons (and, more recently, DNA testing) yielded negative results. Graysmith, however, was convinced that Allen must be the killer, and the scene in which he tracks him down to "look him in the eye? to know that it's him" is extremely effective; it is the moment in which Graysmith frees himself from the grasp of the Zodiac's enigma, allowing him to recapture his life. In order to keep the identity of the killer in doubt, Fincher employed the use of three different actors to portray the Zodiac for the various murder scenes (Richmond Arquette, Bob Stephenson, John Lacy), based on witness descriptions from each of the incidents. Notably, John Carroll Lynch is not used in any of these sequences.
Excellent cinematography by Harris Savides beautifully captures the mood and style of the late 1960s and early 1970s in America. Interestingly, to shoot the film, Savides made use of the digital Thomson Viper Filmstream camera, which has previously been employed by Michael Mann in such films as 'Collateral' and 'Miami Vice,' though 'Zodiac' is the first feature-length Hollywood film to be shot entirely in the Viper's uncompressed digital data format. Though I would have expected digital cinematography to detract from the nostalgic atmosphere of the film, I really didn't even notice the difference. A mixture of popular songs from the era, and original music by David Shire, also complement the film well.
I'll stop short of referring to David Fincher's 'Zodiac' as a masterpiece, but, needless to say, it is truly a remarkable film that will, no doubt, continue to hold firm for many years to come.