© 2007 Ray Wong
Based on James Graysmith's true crime bestseller about an unsolved serial killer case, Zodiac is a riveting suspense-thriller despite its slow pace and long running time.
In the summer of 1969, a murder rattles the communities of Vallejo, CA. When the killer, who calls himself the Zodiac, sends an anonymous letter with an encrypted code to the San Francisco Chronicle (as well as the Examiner and other media) admitting to other murders and demanding the codes to be printed, the city rises to the realization that there's a psychotic serial killer among them.
James Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) is a cartoonist at the Chronicle, who follows the case closely as reporter Paul Avery (Downey) and the editorial board struggle to get to the heart of the story. When the Zodiac Killer strikes in San Francisco, inspectors David Toschi (Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Edwards) become in charge of the investigation. Letters from the Zodiac Killer threatening to kill schoolchildren send the city into full panic mode, as Toschi and Armstrong try to outsmart the killer.
Their leads from four California counties point them to a few possible suspects, including Arthur Leigh Allen (Lynch), who fits all the circumstantial evidences. However, there is never enough hard evidence to make an arrest, and the case remains open for more than 20 years. As the investigation lingers in limbo, Graysmith's obsession with the case, especially the true identity of the Zodiac, leads him on a personal journey despite many obstacles. His discoveries reveal details the police has neglected and make many connections overlooked by others. For once, Graysmith is on the verge of finding the true identity of the Zodiac Killer, at the risk of his own life.
Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) is very good as James Graysmith. His role remains peripheral as he observes his colleagues, but once his takes action and his own story arc takes off, he shows great intensity and the kind of vulnerability that makes you root for him. Mark Ruffalo (All the King's Men) is also excellent as the dedicated, frustrated inspector. He has a down-to-earth quality that makes you believe.
In fact, the performance of the entire cast is excellent. There are no frills, no over-the-top extravagance. Just good, solid characterizations that make the fact-based story real. Okay, maybe the exception is Robert Downey Jr. (Fur), who shines in every scene he's in as the flamboyant report. He steals the movie from both Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo. The outstanding all-star cast includes the solid Anthony Edwards (The Forgotten) in his first major role in three years, the prolific and always spot-on Brian Cox (Running with Scissors) as Marvin Belli, the imposing John Carroll Lynch (Full of It) as the creepy Arthur Leigh Allen, Chloë Sevigny (Sisters) as James Graysmith's wife, and Dermot Mulroney (The Family Stone) as Captain Marty Lee.
Writer James Vanderbilt (Darkness Falls) has successfully weaved Graysmith's detailed recounts of facts and police procedures into a coherent, complex story with multiple view point characters and a focused arc, spanning over 20 years. Graysmith's true crime story provides a lot of information for Vanderbilt, but it's his ability to develop the characters and the believable dialogue that make this long script tense, suspenseful, and incredibly satisfying. Even though there's a true villain in the film, we never really know who that is -- the audiences are guessing as the investigation continues -- and we never really know who the protagonist is either. Sure, in part it's James Graysmith's story, but in truth it really is an ensemble effort, and everyone does a great job.
Director David Fincher (Panic Room) returns to the crime genre and delivers a heck of a thrill ride. His approach is methodical, and sometimes deceptively slow. The detailed unfolding of the story may seem anticlimactic at times, but Fincher ensures us that there is enough information, doubts, conflicts and tension to pull us through. There's not a moment without some kind of dread or tension. Fincher has the good sense of revealing the murders upfront in intense (but not specifically graphic) scenes, hooking us immediately, then holding us by sustaining the tension and suspense throughout the entire film.
There's always a sense of dread (if and when will the Zodiac strike again?) and intrigues (will they ever find the guy?) At the same time, both Fincher and Vanderbilt don't want to commit to a definitive conclusion -- they try to let the audiences make up their own mind and come to their own conclusion. However, they're also true to Graysmith's analysis, experiences and speculations. We may think that they're all trying to coerce us to come to a certain conclusion, but there is always a certain doubt. We just won't know for sure. And as a true crime film, Zodiac is fascinating in many aspects. What a satisfying ride.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny
Director: David Fincher
Writers: James Vanderbilt (based on Robert Graysmith's bestseller)
MPAA Rating: R for violence, killings, language, drug, and brief sexual images
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 8.2 out of 10