Directed by David Fincher
Zodiac finds David Fincher getting his mojo back after a five-year absence. Unfortunately it comes during the last 30 minutes of his overlong, 160-minute serial-killer epic.
As the movie states in the opening frames, Zodiac is based on actual case files and a couple of books by Robert Graysmith, who also figures as one of the central characters.
Back in the late '60s, a serial killer terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area. He killed at least six people and, in order to satisfy his craving for media attention, he called himself "Zodiac" and sent cryptic messages to local newspapers. At one point he threatened to kill a dozen people during the course of a single weekend if the papers did not print his messages.
One of those papers was the San Francisco Chronicle, for which Graysmith was a political cartoonist.
Graysmith, an Eagle Scout so clean-cut that many of his colleagues thought he was "retarded," fashioned himself as something of a cipher guru and quickly picked up on the method behind Zodiac's madness.
Graysmith's obsession spanned more than 20 years and, as depicted in the movie, his all-consuming self-imposed mission to find the killer led to the loss of his job and his wife. Unfortunately, to this day the killer has not been positively identified.
The Most Dangerous Game
Zodiac represents a change of pace for director David Fincher, whose last feature was Panic Room in 2002. He's covered serial killers before in Seven, but this time around all the dark and sinister camera tricks are gone, as are the frenetic style and pacing of Fight Club. This is a very subdued Fincher. But while he deserves credit for taking on a new approach, this might not be the right material for such a Spartan style.
There are still plenty of artful flourishes, including a nifty scene in which time-lapse photography of the Transamerica pyramid under construction serves as an indicator of the passage of time.
The trouble, though, is that amidst all the murder, conspiracy and gumshoe activity, there's very little passion. Fincher smartly steers clear of slasher titillation during the murder scenes, but he fails to build much tension. While Spike Lee's Summer of Sam was not a very good movie, one thing it did better than Zodiac was to create an overwhelming sense of the angst that permeated every day life in New York City during the days (and nights) of the Son of Sam serial killer.
In Zodiac, it's not until the final hour that good old-fashioned Hitchcockian paranoia starts to creep up on the main characters and, in the final 30 minutes, a little chill seeps into the theater.
I am NOT Avery
Zodiac may not build anxiety, but it does offer are a couple great performances from Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) as Graysmith and Robert Downey, Jr. (Good Night, and Good Luck) as Paul Avery, a writer at the Chronicle who sends his own life into a toxic tailspin by calling out the serial killer in his editorials. Both Graysmith and Avery are seen deteriorating under the pressure of an obsession. Gyllenhaal in particular disappears inside his quiet, soft-spoken, but determined character.
Also engaging is Chloe Sevigny (American Psycho) as Melanie, a girl Graysmith meets on a blind date and eventually marries. They're two nerdy peas in a pod, but marriage and childbirth bring Melanie into her own as a woman while Robert continues to struggle with unlocking the killer's identity.
The movie also manages to have some fun with its time period, much like Almost Famous and other movies set in the late '60s and '70s. There's the announcement on the airplane that smoking is allowed in the last six rows only and, of course, everybody is living in that ancient world in which fax machines represent the latest in technology and not a single soul carries a cell phone.
As a side note, even though this movie is more than 2 1/2 hours long, apparently it is a truncated version of Fincher's full vision. No doubt a deluxe edition director's cut DVD will surface at some point and perhaps that will restore some of the moodiness that seems to be missing at the theater.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.