The opening sequence of Zodiac -- a man stalking and shooting a couple parked in a lover's lane, all set to the strains of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" -- offers everything people have come to expect from director David Fincher: stylish cinematography, a blast of brutal violence, and editing just unconventional enough to keep the viewer simultaneously disturbed and riveted. The style is very familiar to those who appreciated Seven for its nightmarish neo-noir sensibilities, or Panic Room for its grab-you-by-the-throat-and-never-let-go aesthetic. Unlike those films, however, Zodiac is much more than an exercise in terrorizing the audience; with this opening, Fincher plunges the audience into the emotional state that all of San Francisco experienced during the years the Zodiac Killer menaced the Bay Area. Over the course of the next two and a half hours, he lays out the personal and professional reasons cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), police detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and newspaper reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) each become involved in the hunt for the killer, all with the efficiency of a Dragnet episode. What elevates Zodiac from a routine police procedural into art is Fincher's ability to make the audience feel what these three men feel in their response to this threat, using their terror as a mere jumping-off point for their psychologically and emotionally complex stories.
The straightforward narrative, sculpted by James Vanderbilt from a pair of nonfiction books written by the real Robert Graysmith, follows the textbook of a police procedural film, especially in the way we are largely excluded from the personal lives of both Toschi and his partner Armstrong, played by a pitch-perfect Anthony Edwards. These characters are defined almost exclusively by their ability to solve crimes, and Ruffalo is deft in communicating the gradual erosion of Toschi's self-regard as the case drags on for years and years without a resolution. Never one to play any emotion broadly, Ruffalo might be a perfect actor for Fincher, whose powerful visual style ups the emotional stakes for an audience. During the middle section of the film, when Toschi and Armstrong follow their most promising lead, Fincher tempers the terror with excitement and frustration as the two devoted detectives desperately try every possible avenue to link the suspect to the crimes. On a first viewing, this portion of the movie may feel slack, as if Fincher has lost his command over the narrative. Not until Zodiac is over does the viewer realize how effectively Fincher has manipulated audience expectations, and made them feel as infuriated and exasperated as the protagonists. This is where terror gives way to frustration and dissatisfaction, emotions most directors never consider eliciting from an audience in a conventional serial-killer movie.
Gyllenhaal's innately appealing demeanor holds the center of the film. One would be hard-pressed to find a young actor more plausible as a former Eagle Scout, and one can admire the sweeping emotional arc of Fincher's entire film in Graysmith's evolution from a straight-arrow nerd to an obsessed amateur detective. The scope of Fincher's ambitions are enhanced by Gyllenhaal's savvy mix of boyishness and competence, and Graysmith's eager-to-please intelligence finds a natural complement in Downey's Paul Avery, an extroverted reporter threatened directly by the Zodiac. Fincher deftly parallels the desire for recognition that Avery and the killer share, allowing the viewer to feel that the monster they are looking for might be closer than they care to recognize.
David Fincher has always possessed a strong sense of film history. The genius of Seven, his other masterpiece, comes in large part from his encyclopedic knowledge of noir tropes. He understands the power that images have, and his films tell us that he likes to show off his knowledge. But Zodiac is the work of a cinematic enfant terrible who has learned there is more to life than movies. There are direct references to Bullitt and Dirty Harry, easily the two most famous films about San Francisco detectives, but these are references made by the characters within the film, not shots stolen by Fincher in order to impress. In these moments, he pointedly expresses that movies are not real life. The film is further grounded in reality by the unobtrusive but flawless art direction and costume design. This is one of the few modern films set in the '70s where the fashion of the times is not made to look ridiculous, but presented as simply the reality of the day. Because the film is grounded in fact, and because he inspires real empathy, Fincher makes his characters more three-dimensional than we expect. It's because of these human connections that Zodiac transcends genre and offers ample proof that David Fincher is well on his way to constructing a body of work worthy of his formidable reputation.
cast-crew for Zodiac on AllMovie
- Sound/Sound Designer, Re-Recording Mixer, Supervising Sound Editor