Serial killers make good villainous subjects for movies, especially notorious ones who never get caught, like Jack the Ripper, spinning off countless of movie adaptations, each with its own theories on who might be the real perpetrator, and responsible for the creation of a subculture devoted to their study and conspiracy theories as natural by products.
While England had her own uncaught cult slasher, America's San Francisco Bay Area had its own serial killer to contend with, someone who calls himself the Zodiac, responsible for taking the lives of plenty in the late 60s. The hallmark of this killer is his terrorist tactics of fear and threats, and the constant taunts and demands made to both the press and the police, belittling and challenging them to come out one step ahead. His killings seem almost random, and employed various weapons from guns to knives, and those cryptic coded messages sent to the press that could have its root keys from anywhere.
With a runtime of 158 minutes, you hardly notice the time whittle by as you become transfixed throughout the entire movie. David Fincher helmed this as a tight ship, firmly knowing its destination, while riding out the complexity of it all, spanning almost a timeline of a decade. Based on the books by Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicles portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, this film doesn't end with a cop out, as it firmly hypothesizes, and supports its theories with whatever evidence it can get its hands on, circumstantial or otherwise. It doesn't flinch from pointing that accusatory finger.
I thought it combined many of the best elements found in Fincher's earlier works, from the obvious stylistic feel of Se7en, also itself a serial killer movie, the effects of Fight Club and the mindgames that its characters play, and of course, the general feel of doom and gloom of Panic Room. Light and Shadows become so integral that we take their contribution to heighten senses of tension for granted, and the rain brought back the memories of that classic confrontational scene from Se7en, though here, it cleanses and erases plausible leads, as if to start all over again to untangle from the messy investigations that trailed off over time.
Those expecting a lot of action in the recreation of the Zodiac killings might be disappointed, and I thought Fincher had steered clear of the obvious, where lesser directors might have played up on those gruesome murders, or photographs from the actual crime scene. Here, it's more of a presentation on what could have happened based on eyewitness and police reports, and it doesn't glorify. With the real life folks who were involved in the cases onboard as consultants, you know that this is as authentic as it can get.
What makes Zodiac engaging is that the movie engages you right from the start, as you take on this investigative journey with the main leads in Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), Paul Avery the Chronicle's senior crime report, played by Robert Downey Jr, and Inspector Dave Toshi of the San Francisco Police Department, portrayed by Mark Ruffalo. We see how the case develops into an obsession for each of these men, as we encounter countless of confusion, red tape, turf protection, dedication to due process, and hindrance. The various departments involved can't work together, and attempts at cooperation are mountains to climb. So it's no wonder that cases like these that span different boundaries, often come up to naught, or take ages to get cracked on.
Zodiac is told in two seamless halves, with the first devoted to the killings and methodology of the killer, and the second giving Graysmith more screen time as he goes for a second helping at trying to piece the puzzles together right from the very beginning. After all, that's one way to do it when stuff turn out all over the place, and the trail gets cold. It's classic investigative journalism, and builds to a resounding crescendo, while you too get frustrated at what can, and cannot be done, what can be presented as evidence, and how circumstantial evidence, strong as they may seem, will always remain circumstantial despite it being possibly damning. There are genuine creepy moments that will get to you, even though there's nothing horrific, or ghoulish about those scenes. That's classic Fincher for you, making your hair stand with achieved subtlety.
Despite its huge cast list and extras, the key leads all delivered strong performances, bringing the movie onto another level, more so with the film's excellent music from the era, and its art direction and sets recreating the 70s SF. And for film buffs, well, Dirty Harry was after all based on the killings and taunting tactics of Zodiac too.
Possibly the best movie to hit our screens this week, surpassing those lacklustre trilogy blockbusters. A definite must watch, so it's well worth that effort to journey to those few screens with warped timings.