★★★★ / ★★★★
A deliberate sidestepping of overt action is the strategy director David Fincher employs in “Zodiac,” a true crime thriller surrounding the hunt for the Zodiac killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area from 1969 to 1971. Highly intelligent, meticulous, and efficient, at times the picture embodies the texture of a documentary in the way it dares to break away from the expected plot and dramatic parabola. What matters is information, how it is presented, and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from them. What results is a film for a select audience: those who are tickled by the act of looking through a microscope and noting the beautiful, horrifying, surprising details of a specimen. It is not for viewers who wish to be entertained by ostentatious shootouts and car crashes where the bad guy drops dead in the final act. In fact, the climax consists simply of two people looking at each other in the eye, denoting common understanding.
Observe its use of violence. It is rapid, matter-of-fact, making a point to show how excruciating it is to get stabbed and shot. Notice how slow motion is used. Attention is not at the point of contact between weapon and flesh—as horror films tend to do—but on facial expressions of the victims. There is no score playing in the background when a person is being assaulted or murdered which makes the whimpering, the crying, the begging for help all the more deafening. Take note, too, how the victims’ desperation can be felt even after killing ends. The violence is meant to be ugly, traumatizing, and sad. Our sympathy is always with the injured or dying person, never the killer. These are designed precisely so that we wish for the Zodiac to get caught—even though we already know he never was.
The picture is an excellent procedural that brings to mind Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” We follow three men who dare to stare into the eyes of evil: San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and SF police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). We experience their day-to-day interactions with colleagues; following—sometimes overstepping—rules and regulations; wrestling with bureaucracy. There is excitement in the rhythm of their workspaces. Downey Jr., Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo deliver terrific, naturalistic performances. They have a habit of inviting us to question what it is they are thinking at any given moment.
Evil stares right back at these figures, however, and we watch their lives unravel throughout the course of twenty-two years: erosion of one’s physical and mental health, deteriorating relationships with family, coming to terms with one’s limitations as an investigator. There is a sense of surrender during the last third in particular. So many years have passed, people who were most enthusiastic to catch the killer then now just want to move on. Even the person who chooses to carry on the torch is forced to wonder at times whether his actions are still worth it. These are characters worth following not only because they are good at their jobs, getting to the truth is who they are.
Despite numerous details surrounding each murder (especially intriguing are scenes that allow us to walk a crime scene), handwritten letters that the Zodiac sent to newspapers, a dozen witness accounts, and endless paper trails, the labyrinthine mystery is told with urgency and clarity. For example, the screenplay by James Vanderbilt does not simply tell us that a partial set of fingerprints from an otherwise extremely cautious murderer is important. It shows how it is important and why. When a piece of evidence is presented, the astute and patience writing makes a point of relating the information to the bigger picture and so we always have an appreciation of the investigation. Does a seemingly reliable evidence make sense? How so? The film wishes to engage rather than spoon-feed us.
The picture is not without a sense of humor. In between gruesome deaths and barrage of possible case-breaking information are moments of exhalation: a date gone wrong (or gone right—depending on how one looks at it), police stations not having fax machines yet and so urgent files must be sent via snail mail, a character’s obsession with animal crackers, among many others. These did not need to be in the movie—and yet they are. Fincher wishes for us to be so invested into this world that he is able to find humor amidst terrifying events. Nearly every single change in tone is pulled off beautifully.