Director: David Fincher
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Edwards, Mark Ruffalo
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It’s hard to name David Fincher’s best film: he has so many best films. Zodiac, though, is certainly one of them. The 2007 thriller is a painstakingly accurate depiction of the ’70s hunt for real-life serial killer ‘The Zodiac’, spanning a staggering 158 minutes. That runtime might not sound riveting on paper, but it is – precisely because of that.
Time is as much a force to be reckoned with as the killer. Terrorising San Francisco for over a decade, the murderer sent encrypted messages to several newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle. Among the Chronicle’s staff are journalist Paul Avery (Downey Jr) and cartoonist Rob Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), who eventually compile the book upon which the film is based. Constantly confronted by dead ends, earnest police inspector Toschi (a typically humble Mark Ruffalo) retires from what becomes a life-swallowing investigation, leaving his partner (ER’s Anthony Edwards) to move on to other cases. Enter Graysmith, armed with library card and puffer jacket, keen to solve the murders at any cost. The price, he soon discovers, is his family: the wife, the kids, not to mention his sanity, all go down the drain.
At Rob’s side is Paul, a dogged reporter and developing alcoholic. While Downey Jr’s and Gyllenhaal’s All the President’s Men-style double act yields results as well as banter (Downey Jr. would seal his comeback a year later in Iron Man), the duo are fated not to last. Instead, Graysmith is left alone, as Avery retreats to his run-down trailer to hide from the world – even the most colourful newspaper report can’t stand up against the erosion of the Zodiac hunt. Both performances are chillingly believable. The rest of the cast follow suit, producing a full house that consistently engages – and, crucially, is perpetually in thrall to the crime unfolding in front of them.
From the brutal opening slaughter of a young couple in a car, Fincher and DoP Harris Savides force us to look at The Zodiac’s actions without blinking. The camera is close-up and unflinching, or detached and filming from above – neither of which offer us any hope or comfort. As the years pass slowly, though, the impact of each death numbs, replaced by something equally troubling; the gnawing prospect of never catching the person responsible. (The killer himself is repeatedly played by different people; if we can’t recognise him, how does anyone else in the film stand a chance of identifying him?)
Titles provide exposition of dates and locations, but this montage is far from bitty; the days fall further and further apart, every fade from black bringing another spurt of suspense, another chance to find an increasingly impossible resolution.
While the evidence is gradually pieced together, a stunning time-lapse shot of the Transamerica Pyramid being built captures the thorough nature of the investigation – and Fincher’s own direction. Determined to recapture the period, complete with its clothes, music and overhanging fear, he is famous for taking his time on set. Even his cutaways are meticulously assembled: like a musty folder, Zodiac is stuffed with insert shots of evidence bags, notebooks, letters and clippings, each filed with precision. One shot of Graysmith’s notebook being thrown on a car seat took no fewer than 36 takes to satisfy the director.
That idiosyncratic attention to detail is at the heart of Zodiac’s subtle impact; a procedural reconstruction with the emphasis on procedure, it’s as shocking as Se7en and as substantial as The Social Network. After several long, uneventful hours of following leads and acting out routines, its own frustration itches under your skin. The movie’s best moments aren’t pursuits or shootouts, but near misses or half-chances: one sequence that sees Graysmith go into the basement of a possible culprit is genuinely nail-biting, while another suspect (John Carroll Lynch) underscores the futility of the whole operation, by never appearing particularly villainous. “I’m not the Zodiac,” he calmly explains. “And if I was, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.”
A cop film with no car chases, a mystery with no solution, Zodiac is a masterclass in sustaining tension – and a thoughtful exploration of what happens when it doesn’t pay off. It’s hard to name David Fincher’s best film. Zodiac, though, is undoubtedly the most David Fincher of them all.
Zodiac is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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