“There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.” That tag line alone expertly explains what to expect from this film. Most movies centering on a murderer or at least the investigation of one, never explore the commitment required to track down an unknown suspect. Not many films make that courageous leap into the psyche of obsessed men, where an initially normal homicide eventually becomes their lives. Being an enormous fan of David Fincher, I, like many others, hoped and expected a film comparable to Se7en but instead of following a standard serial killer formula, Fincher explores the lives that were consumed by these otherwise insignificant string of murders.
In the late 1960’s, a killer known as the “Zodiac” plagued the San Francisco Bay Area, sending numerous letters to local newspapers with ciphers that taunted police and freightened the locals. The film isn’t concerned with the killer per se, but more the men and women who relentlessly pursued him and how they gradually suffered for it. Ultimately, it isn’t the unspectacular murders that fascinate people but simply for the fact that it remains, even today, one of the most famous unsolved mysteries in history.
Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, becomes fascinated when the strange zodiac ciphers arrive at the paper. Utterly fascinated by the letters, Graysmith takes it upon himself to solve the Zodiac killings himself (eventually writing the books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked) and eventually assists Inspector David Toschi (played by Mark Ruffalo) in his deliberate case to find the killer. The film spans over many years and makes no attempts at rushing it’s pace, the two hour and forty minute film takes its time to tell the story.
The cast is flawless. Jake Gyllenhaal successfullly pulls off the naive, clumsy aspect of the character as well as the smart, determined side. His dedication to solve the case of the Zodiac is brilliantly played out in not only the dialogue but his eyes. Constantly, you’re convinced that he will stop at nothing to find out who the Zodiac is. Mark Ruffalo particularly nails it. His progression from confident, focused investigator subtly transitions to tired, depressed failure and Ruffalo always plays it straight. It’s by far the best role he’s ever had.
The supporting actors are all equally stunning such as the always reliable Brian Cox, Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas and Chloe Sevigny but the reigning actor in this line up by far is Robert Downey, Jr. His performance is comedic, yes, but not in a conventional sense. If he does anything remotely amusing, it still feels completely organic. Unlike some of his other movies, he refuses to go over the top with his wit and keeps everything in focus. I loved every minute he was on screen.
Fincher has always been known as a stylist but unlike Panic Room or Fight Club, he restrains himself from being over-stylized and always keeps a consistent tone. That isn’t to say that Cinematographer Harris Savides doesn’t perform, on the contrary, every frame in this film is absolute perfecton. Every shot is impeccably framed and not once did I question the time period. Every street corner, every color, every little spec of detail is so accurately executed that it seamlessly transports us to the 1960’s.
This isn’t David Fincher’s best work (Se7en dominates that throne) but it is certainly one of the best films he’s ever made. As a filmmaker, he deftly demonstrates his focus and maturity, showing us that he could potentially join the ranks of Scorsese or Spielberg. As bold a statement as that seems, this film proves it.
If you’re expecting a film similar to Se7en, please don’t. This isn’t Se7en. Fincher has been there and done that. This is a drastically different film in comparison that moves in a slow pace and tells its story through character development and good dialogue. If you’re expecting an action film, think otherwise, it’s much more than that. It’s a near-masterpiece.