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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review: Zodiac (2007)

* * * *

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.

Zodiac is David Fincher’s most mature and focused film to date. Mixing elements of police procedural, newspaper story, and thriller together while sidestepping most clichés inherent in those genres, the film is utterly engrossing and effective. I know some dislike the film’s non-resolution, but given the real-life circumstances the ending really can’t be helped and, besides, having an ending that provides more questions than answers fits well with the overall tone of the rest of the film.

The film begins on July 4, 1969 with the murder of Darlene Ferrin and the attempted murder of Mike Mageau. After shooting both multiple times the killer leaves and calls the police to claim credit for this crime and for a double murder six months earlier. A month later he writes letters to various San Francisco newspapers along with coded messages that he claims hold clues to his identity. The cipher is eventually solved – not by any of the government agencies working on it, but by a history teacher and his wife – but the killer’s identity remains a mystery. Meanwhile, more letters arrive, more people are killed, and as the decades pass the case gets colder and colder.

The story is structured in such a way that different characters take the lead at different times. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is the San Francisco Chronicle’s crime reporter and becomes an expert on the case. He is eventually sent evidence from one of the crime scenes – in the form of a bloody piece of a victim’s shirt – as a thinly-veiled threat and as the case continues to drag on, his life begins to unravel thanks to alcohol and drugs. Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is one of the detectives assigned to the case whose job is made doubly difficult by the fact that the crimes took place in different jurisdictions and the sharing of information is sometimes done grudgingly. He and his partner Bill (Anthony Edwards) follow various leads and even find a likely suspect in the form of Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), but just can’t conclusively prove his guilt. After several years Bill excuses himself from the case, exhausted by it, but Dave keeps on until eventually being suspended from the force after being accused of writing a forged Zodiac letter. The third and final lead is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist for the Chronicle who will eventually write a book about the Zodiac killings.

The way that the film moves Graysmith into the story’s centre is very well done. He hangs on the periphery at the beginning, not particularly welcomed into any investigative aspect because, after all, he’s just a cartoonist. He forms a friendship with Avery, who in one scene admonishes him for “hovering” at Avery’s desk, and through him absorbs all the information that Avery discovers while reporting on the case. When Avery is out of the picture and it begins to look like the police have given up on solving the case, Graysmith decides to put all the evidence together himself in the hopes of illuminating something. Toschi, frustrated by the department’s inability to make a solid case against Allen, decides to quietly help Graysmith by giving him tips and Graysmith eventually comes to the same conclusion as the police that Allen is the Zodiac.

Though the film itself makes a fairly persuasive case against Allen, it isn’t really about discovering the identity of the Zodiac killer. It is more a film about obsession. Graysmith needs to know the identity of the killer, just as the Zodiac needs to flaunt himself to the police and the general public. During the course of his quest Graysmith puts himself directly into danger (one sequence involves him doing something so spectacularly stupid that it has to be seen to be believed) and effectively destroys his marriage in the process, and although he believes that he solves the puzzle in the end, the film itself isn’t so sure. Throughout the film, doubts are cast not only as to the identity of the killer but as to how much the Zodiac is actually responsible for. He claims more victims than the police are willing to give him credit for, some of the letters may be forgeries, a phone call to a local morning show may not be from him at all – in short it’s about the mythology of the killer rather than solidly proving his identity.

Though the film runs at over 2 and a half hours, it is well-paced and constructed in a way that suspense can be maintained throughout. The characters – save for Graysmith’s wife who gets a thankless part in the story and is a waste of Chloe Sevigny’s talent – are well developed and expertly played. Downey provides the film with flair, Ruffalo is solid as the increasingly weary Toschi, and as Graysmith Gyllenhaal is like a Hardy boy in over his head. Of particular note in technical aspect is the cinematography by Harris Savides, which gives the film a very old school look and feel. Zodiac is the whole package, a period film that doesn't simply wear the mask of time and place, but captures the spirit of it in every aspect.

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