I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that 2007 was quite possibly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, years for film ever. I’ve been thinking it for awhile, but after watching this amazing film from ’07 I’m officially acknowledging it. This is kind of all hitting me at once, not least of all because in 2007 itself the only movie I went to see was the fifth Harry Potter. I’ve recently seen There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, Gone Baby Gone, and now Zodiac. All of them have been fantastic, and I still have to see Juno, Antonement, and Grindhouse from that year which I’ve heard are also really good (with the exception of Grindhouse, but since it’s Tarantino I’m pretty sure I won’t hate it at least). Maybe I’m being a little optimistic, but I’ve just been bombarded with excellent films from 2007 lately and don’t think I haven’t noticed.
Anyway, to the film at hand: Zodiac. Surprisingly, this is the first film of David Fincher’s that I’ve seen. Though I have heard nothing but good things about him and his films, I haven’t gotten around to watching any of them until now (the reason why I haven’t seen Fight Club yet is that I know we’re watching it in film class soon so I figured I’d just wait until then). I must say I’m very impressed with what he did here with Zodiac, specifically how he was able to recreate the time period and induce suspense. I have not gotten this worked up while watching a movie since watching Raging Bull and before that Vertigo. As the film went on and on I just got more and more worried about how things were going to turn out for the main character, and the best part is you never really find out for sure! It really felt like the sixties and seventies though, from the soundtrack to the newroom that really reminded me of All the President’s Men.
Zodiac is based on a true story of the Zodiac Killer of San Francisco in the late 60s and early 70s. It tells the story of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and is actually based on the real book that he is writing based on the Zodiac Killer in the film. As the film begins, he is simply a humble cartoonist working for the San Francisco Chronicle when mysterious ciphers from someone calling himself “Zodiac” start showing up. Nobody around the office really takes him seriously, because he’s just a cartoonist after all, so he has to sneak around to get information about the case. However, there are some guys who’s actual job it is to catch the killer: Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), and the crime reporter for the Chronicle Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr).
First Robert sort of sneaks around the office, stealing the Zodiac notes out of garbage cans and whatnot, bringing them home and trying to decode them. He actually doesn’t do too bad, I think some of the readers of the paper actually crack it but he finds the books that Zodiac probably used to develop the code. Avery realizes his interest in the case, and the two start work together in a way. There’s this great scene where the two of them go to the bar to talk over the case, and Robert orders this blue girly drink like the totally naive guy he is. Avery makes fun of him for it, but once he tries it he starts drinking one of those himself! I found that very funny. Anyway, they get a couple of good suspects lined up. The murders continue, and so do the notes with the codes. There are multiple trips to a handwriting expert (Phillip Baker Hall), lots of false tips being called in, and a lot of panic going around. After awhile, it seems they have a pretty good lead in one Arthur Lee Allen (John Caroll Lynch).
He looks really good for it, but they can’t make anything stick. At this point, it’s the mid-seventies and this thing has just been going on way too long. The Zodiac hasn’t killed anybody in awhile, and since he isn’t as much of a threat people aren’t as bothered about dealing with him anymore. The public doesn’t seem to be in much danger anymore, they’re not making much progress since Allan doen’t fit, so everyone involved in the case is just getting sick and tired of it. Bill gets fed up dealing with a case of this weight, Avery gets paranoid after The Zodiac threatens him, and Toschi actually gets framed for forging one of the letters to help his career. He gets moved down, and the case is basically dead.
However, Robert continues to go deeper and deeper into the case, in that classic move where it becomes his whole life etc etc. Yes, this has been done before but I really love the way it’s done here. There are some scenes with his family, but their story is not really continuous. Fincher shows him meeting his wife for the first time, and the case interupts it. Later on, I wasn’t even quite sure if they were married or just living together. Some kids popped up out of nowhere. These events are not dwelled upon, because they’re not part of the case at hand. His wife does plead with him to just drop it already, but it’s never overdone. She eventually just leaves, and it’s not even an emotional blow for Robert really, and the film doesn’t harp on about it. By understating it, Fincher further makes the point that the case is what really matters to Robert and the rest is just an unwanted distraction.
Going off this idea, I really loved how Gyllenhaal played Robert. He was such a boy scout, and they literally said as much throughout the film. I liked how even though he was going down the creepy dark tunnel of obsession, he still seemed like a nice guy. He still acted like himself, like how he was presented in the early scenes. It was still clear he was getting obsessed, don’t get me wrong, but the darkness that came out of him was really subtle. Through it all, he still seemed like a nice guy that just liked to solve puzzels and whatnot. He didn’t turn into some mad raving lunatic, just a version of his early self with one change: he really wants to find The Zodiac Killer. The rest of the performances were all good too, the main ones being Ruffalo and Downey Jr. It’s actually Downey Jr’s birthday today; the main reason I’m reviewing this. He was his normal sarcastically lovable self here, and unlike Robert it was clear that Avery’s sanity was slipping a bit. Still, not overdone at all, which I definitely appreciated. He had most of the best lines as well.
As I mentioned before, the case is never really solved for one hundred percent sure. No one, to this day (as it is based on a true story), knows for sure who The Zodiac Killer is. It’s kind of creepy to think of that coming out of the film, but it’s also really cool. How many movies do you see where not only the villain gets away, but he is never even identified? I mean, I’m sure they exist, and serial killer films are probably most susceptible to this and I haven’t seen many, but still. It was a great way to end the film, which had had so many tense and unsettling moments come before. There was this one scene in particular towards the end when Robert goes to talk to this guy about some evidence in the case, and man, it really looks like he is about to get it. I barely even breathed during that scene; I am not even kidding.
And because I can’t get through a review without talking about references, let me just say how many references were in this film (and these are only the ones I got). Though I’m not that familiar with Fincher, I feel like he doesn’t have the reputation of say Tarantino of referencing everything, but to be honest, in this film at least, I found so many more than most of Tarantino’s films (probably because of what the references were to). First and foremost we have, you guessed it, a Hitchcock reference. It’s really subtle, there’s just a poster for The Wrong Man hanging in Robert’s house. I had to rewind to make sure it was there, but it’s there. They have so many suspects in the case, clearly some of them must be “the wrong man.” However, it’s really hard to know for sure. I’m not sure if there are any more parallels having to do with The Wrong Man itself, I mean both are based on a true story and both feature an innocent man wrongly accused (Toschi), but here he is not really the main focus.
The Zodiac Killer apparently based his killings on The Most Dangerous Game, which I have read the short story of but have not seen the film (in fact, I didn’t know there was one until it was mentioned here). The idea is, and it is fully explained here, that hunting people is a lot harder, and therefore more worthwhile, than hunting animals. So The Zodiac goes after them. This one is clearly stated, and I can only assume it’s true to the real case. Referencing stuff often gives a good sense of realism, and I really felt that in this case. In real life, people get inspired by stuff, and they talk about it. Not so in a lot of films. Unfortunately this work made this dude want to go out and kill people. Also there’s a lot of Dirty Harry in here, which is especially appropriate considering that Dirty Harry is losely based on the Zodiac murders. I actually didn’t know that before, but it definitely makes me want to see Dirty Harry again. It’s really important when the film itself comes up in Zodiac though, because it says a lot about Toschi’s character and how far he will go to catch the killer as opposed to Callahan, who clearly goes pretty dang far.
I was really very impressed by Zodiac. The only thing I wasn’t impressed with was the Golden Gate Bridge CGI; I though it was unnecessary and it really stuck out, but that was literally the only thing I wasn’t impressed with. This is a very very good film, on pretty much all levels. Even more important than being technically impressive, is how on edge it made me. It seems, as I watch more and more films, it’s harder for films to do this sort of thing to me anymore, but this one did. I felt really kind of weird after it, but mostly very satisfied because I knew I had just seen a great film. It’s one I would watch again, for sure, and I’m definitely going to have to make some room for some more Fincher because dang. This guy’s good.
“What are you, some kind of boy scout?”
“Eagle scout actually… first class.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars