Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac (The Director’s Cut): adapted by James Vanderbilt from the non-fiction book by Robert Graysmith; directed by David Fincher; starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector David Toschi), Anthony Edwards (Inspector William Armstrong), Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery), Chloe Sevigny (Melanie), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), Elias Koteas (Sgt. Jack Mulanax), Dermot Mulroney (Captain Marty Lee), John Carroll Lynch ( Arthur Leigh Allen) and Donal Logue (Captain Ken Narlow) (2007): What I consider to be director David Fincher’s finest film, and one of the ten best American movies of the last ten years, is a crime procedural about the hunt for the Zodiac, a San Francisco-area serial killer of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In its calculated retro-look, Zodiac is both an homage and an addition to the ranks of great 1970’s docudramas that include The French Connection, Serpico, and All the President’s Men.

Mirroring the investigation, the film’s pace is slow and deliberate. As the movie only shows Zodiac crimes for which there were witnesses, the first known Zodiac killing is discussed but never shown. And what we are shown of the killings is horrifying but not gratuitous. There’s far more gore in an average episode of CSI. Or Dirty Harry, for that matter, itself based partially on the Zodiac killings.

This is a film to be savoured and mulled over. Fincher gets fine performances from his entire cast, though I think Mark Ruffalo — as (real) Inspector Dave Toschi, gives both the best and the most period-accurate performance. Ruffalo looks like a 70’s actor in this film, a slightly more conventionally handsome Gene Hackman. Everyone else is good as well, with Jake Gyllenhaal, as the editorial cartoonist-turned-amateur-sleuth Robert Graysmith, playing the straight-arrow heart of the movie (it’s his book that the film is based on).

The opening scene, set to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, is one of the most striking set-pieces I’ve seen in any film. And Donovan’s daughter, Ione Skye, has an uncredited cameo later in the film. Weird stuff. The Zodiac too is weird: a mixture of the malign and the banal and the lucky, the killer is accurately portrayed as a windbag who craves media attention. His interactions with celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (played with smarmy, self-satisfied gusto by Brian Cox, the first movie Hannibal Lecter) look like rehearsals for every ridiculous Nancy Grace and Geraldo Rivera moment of the past 20 years. Belli even appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek, “And the Children Shall Lead”, as evil alien angel Gorgon!

Whatever and whoever he was, there’s nothing Luciferian about Zodiac, nothing of Hannibal Lecter. John Carroll Lynch (Marge’s husband in Fargo) nails his few scenes as the prime suspect in the case, an angry white guy with a really awful trailer full of awful stuff.

The Director’s Cut DVD also gives the viewer about three hours of new documentary material on the Zodiac investigation, much of it shot and edited in the style of Errol Morris. This, too, is riveting stuff, and the filmmakers play fair: the documentary material raises doubts about the film’s conclusion as to who the Zodiac really was. Highly recommended.

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