Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Remember Seven? Of course you do. Remember Gwynnie’s head in a box? Think hard, now. David Fincher, director of Seven and now Zodiac, likes the grisly stuff, but he doesn’t like showing it—memory might tell you otherwise, but you never actually saw Apple’s mom, minus her bod, ready to ship. Fincher only made you picture it.
That’s what you need to keep in mind with Zodiac: The movie may be about a serial killer, but instead of a roller-coaster ride full of bloody murders, you get about two hours and 40 minutes of…talking. The film is full of just-the-facts chatter among investigators and journalists—which, as every CSI spinoff and film in the mode of All the President’s Men proves, is the most fascinating kind. Those seeking a quick slasher fix should look elsewhere.
Fincher’s finely tuned sense of eeriness and James Vanderbilt’s intelligent, mildly humorous script rewards the patient. Its story, about a man who in the ’60s and ’70s allegedly killed an unconfirmed number of people in the Bay Area, is based on a book on the case by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist-turned-obsessive Robert Graysmith. Vanderbilt and Fincher reportedly took little artistic license in bringing the Zodiac mystery’s defining details to the screen; this background, along with the knowledge that the murderer has never been caught, adds significant tension to what would already have been a gripping police procedural.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Graysmith, who was a quiet rookie editorial cartoonist at the Chronicle when its editor began getting letters from the self-dubbed Zodiac. The Zodiac openly takes responsibility for an attack on a young couple on Christmas, and for another the following July 4. He instructs the editor that if he doesn’t use the afternoon edition to publish the lengthy code that the Zodiac included in a letter, more people will die. Other newspapers and the police received the same threat, and though an enterprising Chronicle reader solved the puzzle, it didn’t stop the Zodiac from sending more missives—or from killing again. At this point, Graysmith is just a timid, transfixed observer—we later find out he’s literally an Eagle Scout—while weathered reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is assigned the case. John Q. Law is represented by inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). The levels of cooperation among the interested parties are often as unpredictable as the Zodiac’s next move.
Though Fincher drenches his movie with more gab than gore, there’s plenty to make you squirm. One terrific scene shows an extensive interaction between the Zodiac and a picnicking couple: Out of the blue sky comes a figure lurking behind trees, eventually showing himself dressed completely in black with an executioner’s hood covering his face. He has a large gun. The couple cooperates: The man tosses over his wallet and keys, and the woman agrees to tie up her boyfriend. The Zodiac then ties her up, forces both of them onto their stomachs, and proceeds to stab them. You’ve seen this before, but imagine it without the eek-eek-eek soundtrack that typically accompanies such an attack. Imagine it with only the sound of a knife going in and out of conscious humans. The entire scene is just a few minutes long, but it puts a year’s worth of Black Christmases and its ilk to shame. (And if you happen to find Donovan creepy already, you’ll definitely turn off the radio the next time “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” comes on.)
A super cast is no guarantee of a film’s success. (See—or, rather, don’t—last year’s All the King’s Men.) But here the big names ace their roles without showboating or eclipsing one another. Downey trades in his often twitchy delivery for a quiet, even-keeled—though still dryly amusing—persona, while Ruffalo affects a slightly higher-pitched, fragile tone as the investigator who lives and comes close to being broken by the case. Gyllenhaal distinguishes himself the least, but he gives an impressively subtle performance as his character morphs from wide-eyed young dad to an increasingly disturbed neurotic who puts solving the crimes ahead of his family’s safety. Zodiac’s victory is that, like the real situation with Graysmith, the more information it gives you, the more you want.