Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Ed Setrakian
Directed by: David Fincher
I was shocked to hear that after five years, David Fincher was releasing a new movie, and it was coming out in… March? That couldn’t be right. March is a time for Wild Hogs, Premonition and the like. Not a David Fincher movie. It could only mean one of two things: A) the movie industry has finally realised that it might be a bad business practice to inundate their customers with crap for the first four months of the year, or B) Fincher didn’t make a very good movie this time around.
Well, I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t B, but, given that this $85 million dollar movie only made $13 million on its opening weekend (compared to Wild Hogs‘ $39 million), don’t count on A happening again anytime soon. Here’s the thing: Zodiac isn’t just a good movie, or good for this time of year, it is a phenomenal movie. The kind of movie that would generate Oscar buzz had it been released 8-9 months from now (which is another practice we can expect to continue, the cramming of quality movies into the last four weeks of the year).
Fincher has lost nothing in the five years since Panic Room was released, meticulously crafting a confident thriller that delves into the minds of three men who pursue the Zodiac Killer that stalked San Francisco in the late 1960s. The movie, adapted from books by Robert Graysmith (played in the movie by Jake Gyllenhaal), follows the story from the murders that brought the killer into the public eye, to the years and decade to follow the unsolved crimes, as the city begins to forget, but the obsession of the men involved (particularly Graysmith) continues.
The theme of obsession is a good one for Fincher, whose reputation for obsessive filmmaking seems earned in this movie. Zodiac is a visually compelling, grippingly detailed film with scenes that made me jump, others that made my skin crawl, and others that left me in awe. At 158 minutes, it’s a long movie, but had me enthralled the entire time. It’s necessarily long, as the movie is more about the period that followed the murders than the murders themselves. The movie is interested in what drove the men involved in the investigation as the trail went cold, be it Graysmith, an editorial cartoonist employed by the San Francisco Chronicle when the Zodiac sent them letters and ciphers to be published by the newspaper, Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the lead detective for the case (who would serve as the inspiration for Dirty Harry, as the movie lifted its plot from the Zodiac case), and crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), who would find his life threatened by the killer.
The life these men led in the months and years that followed the Zodiac’s last letters to the press were ones of frustration and near misses. The lengthy running time for the movie allows the audience to feel the frustration and sense of hopelessness along with the characters. There were times when the film would skip ahead a year, and I audibly expressed my sympathy for the characters. However, while I shared their frustration, at no point did I feel that the movie was dragging. It’s a delicate balance that he pulls off, thanks to an excellent cast and brilliant cinematography of Harris Savides. As a result, I was as equally drawn into the red herrings and false leads of the second half of the movie as I was to the pulse-pounding murder scenes of the first half.
I’m not normally that interested in procedural dramas, so it is quite a feat that this one had me rapt for the entire time I watched it. It is a very different movie than any of Fincher’s previous works, eschewing the nihilism of Fight Club or grit of Se7en to tell a straight-forward story, heavier on detail than mood, in the process, he has crafted a movie that belongs near the top of his resume. Here’s hoping he doesn’t take another five years to deliver his next masterpiece.