Saturday 26 June 2021

Movie Review: Zodiac (2007)

An ambitious crime drama based on real events, Zodiac excels at conveying arduous investigative effort. But the film is overlong and burdened with a determination to cover detailed events over many years.

The setting is California, starting in 1969. A couple is shot by an unknown assailant in a Vallejo lovers' lane parking area. Months later, another couple is stabbed near a lake in Napa County. In both cases the woman dies but the man survives. A few weeks later, a taxi driver is stabbed to death in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Chronicle receives a series of letters with encrypted codes from a person claiming to be the murderer. The codes are broken and the killer is labelled Zodiac. One of his letters threatens an attack on a bus full of school children, throwing San Francisco into panic. The Chronicle's acerbic crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) covers the case, while the newspaper's introverted cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes obsessed with uncovering Zodiac's identity. 

San Francisco's celebrated Police Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are placed in charge, but despite no shortage of leads and suspects they cannot find enough evidence to charge anyone. Fascination with Zodiac diminishes when his letters start to falsely claim credit for every murder in town. The years pass and the case fades from memory, but Graysmith will not give up on his quest to uncover the man behind the symbol.

Directed by David Fincher and written by James Vanderbilt, Zodiac is not short on aspirational scope, tracing incidents from 1969 to 1991. The period details are carefully recreated, and the intricate dedication to details, including many investigative dead-ends, is admirable. The murder scenes are chilling and adopt the victims' perspectives, adding to the sense of mystery surrounding the assailant's identity.

But after a strong start, this is a story with a long and meandering denouement. The initial bursts of fear and apprehension triggered by the murders, followed by coded letters shoving journalists into the story and detectives jumping onto the case, all create high expectations for a cerebral thriller. But to the detriment of the film's entertainment value, Fincher remains faithful to facts that refuse to adhere to genre conventions. 

The middle third starts to sag as the murders stop and limited progress is made on finding the killer. And the final third is endless: Graysmith becomes the sole focus, his obsession consuming his life over many years and long after everyone else stopped caring. The departures from cinematic expectations are admirable, but as Fincher insists on tracking every false lead (at least it feels like it), the ups and downs of an amateur investigation meld into each other with numerous side-trips to duelling handwriting experts. It's all but impossible to keep track of the muddle of names keeping Graysmith away from his long-suffering wife (Chloƫ Sevigny) and children.

Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal take turns at centre stage as key characters fade in then out of the investigation. The three stars excel at conveying the grinding emotional and physical toll of an intractable case on different personalities, as all three men get in too deep, becoming personally involved and losing parts of their soul. Downey's too-cool-to-care attitude passes the baton to Ruffalo's celebrity detective crashing against bureaucratic ineptitude. Finally Gyllenhaal runs the last lap, a study in personal fixation.

Zodiac embraces details often ignored. The effort is unique, but also an exception that proves the rule.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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