Zodiac Review: Technically Beautiful, But Troubled Story

March 7, 2007

Director David Fincher, who established himself in the thriller realm with Se7en, decided to take on another one of his own obsessions - the Zodiac serial killer from the 1960s and 1970s in San Francisco. In this very lengthy look at the killer and the individuals who became obsessed with solving the case, Fincher works quite a bit of incredible magic, but the film soon begins to unwind at the fault of its length and limited story. Zodiac is undeniably a great film, but it just gets too caught up in itself by the end.

The Zodiac's second murder, which set everything off, occurred on July 4, 1969, when two young adults were shot in their car at night - only one survived. Twenty-seven days later, three newspapers in San Francisco each received a letter from the killer and a separate cryptic cipher, and are told to print them or he'll go on a killing spree. This is the pretense to the events that occur within Zodiac, which chronicles his additional three murders and the lives of San Francisco Chronicle crime columnist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and police inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). Based on the book by Robert Graysmith himself, the film focuses primarily on Graysmith, but also involves the others who became too involved for their own good: Avery, Toschi, and even Graysmith himself.

Inspector Dave Toschi (L) sits with Robert Graysmith (R) discussing the killings in a scene from Zodiac.Zodiac

Technically Zodiac isn't a horror movie so I won't judge it as one, though there were some moments that gave a genuinely good thrill. Zodiac is a solid drama and murder mystery more than anything. Fincher's atmosphere in each scene, accented by great camera work, establishes a very distinct and beautiful setup for each moment. His technical abilities, praised before in his previous Fight Club and Alien 3, are phenomenal, and they alone are reason to see this film. As much as I enjoyed the first half's intensity and intrigue of the initial killings and first letters, Zodiac skipped by much too quickly beyond this and took a downhill turn as it rolled its way towards the 3 hour mark.

So much happened within the first years when the killings took place, between the first few in 1968 and 1969 and when the newspapers received the letters, to the additional killings and additional letters that arrived at the Chronicle. Yet most of this, including all of the killings, are covered at much too fast of a pace. The focus should have instead been shifted, with more time spent on the initial killings and letters than the eventual obsession of Graysmith years down the road.

The character development is the biggest problem. In Zodiac there is never really a chance to understand any of the people who become too obsessed. Downey Jr.'s character Paul Avery, as we later find out, loses his mind and leaves his job, but we never see his progression into this madness. We're only shown glimpses of Avery from Graysmith's point of view. It's the same with Ruffalo's character David Toschi: we only see bits and pieces of Toschi over his various stages, but never the actual progression. There was never even a chance to explore the relationship Graysmith was in, including its troubles when he became obsessed with the Zodiac, and even though his wife Melanie (Chloë Sevigny) was in a few scenes, nothing of required length was added.

Over the length of the film, Robert Downey Jr.'s character of a crime columnist begins to lose his mind after spending too much time focused on the Zodiac killings.Zodiac

I can still think back and consider this a very well-made film with many positives, including the performances, but nothing extraordinary. The actors simply fit into the roles they were given, with not much room to expand. Gyllenhaal was a great young political cartoonist, without much expansion, Downey Jr. was a great mentally unstable character, Ruffalo was yet again another great obsessed cop. The length is simply one of the biggest downfalls of this film, and it's best put as described by friend: a film about the Zodiac killer would be amazing, a film about the obsessed cops trying to solve the Zodiac murders, even better, but a film about a political cartoonist, a crime columnist, and an obsessed cop, just doesn't cut it.

Last Word:
Zodiac has all the makings of a great film, including better filmmaking and technical aspects than most movies, but its unconstrained story and lengthy structure bring about a collapse by the end. It seems as if it just needed a bit more tightening of its screws and chops at the editing block to really be turned into a masterpiece. However, as it stands, it's a great film that exudes excellence with everyone involved in their respective roles and is just a damn good murder mystery that really gets you thinking.

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