I don’t know what movie many of my enthusiastic critical brethren saw when they screened David Fincher’s Zodiac, but I can’t help but feel it wasn’t the same one I saw. The film I viewed did not give me “the existential willies,” as it did David Edelstein (New York magazine). Though Richard Corliss (Time) states, “You’ll feel a chill in the theater, and in your blood,” I didn’t. And regardless of the stoutest assurance by Peter Travers (Rolling Stone), I was neither “hooked,” nor “creeped out big time.” What I found was a generally entertaining—albeit overlong—examination of two newspapermen and two detectives and their obsessive hunt for a much-publicized serial killer who called himself “Zodiac. ”
What I did not find was an effective thriller. Maybe I’ve seen too many horror films, but I wasn’t particularly horrified by the depiction of the killings. Oh, the scenes are brutal enough, but were they anything out of the ordinary? Not as far as I could see. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve yet to be convinced of the greatness of David Fincher as a filmmaker. His work has always struck me as distinctive merely for being drably unpleasant (unless we’re talking about Panic Room (2002), which merely struck me as being rather silly). Otherwise his work is distinguished by strong performances through careful casting. Both are certainly at work in Zodiac, which is certainly drab enough and just as certainly marked by solid performances from its well-appointed cast. It is, however, less unpleasant than Fincher’s much-praised Se7en (1997). (In fact, the only scene that directly calls to mind Se7en‘s peculiarly grim worldview is a visit to a suspect’s inexplicably squirrel-infested mobile home.)
In the main, Zodiac suffers from a basic premise problem. Given the title of the film and how it’s being marketed, you are likely to think the film is about the Zodiac killer or about tracking down the killer, when it’s actually about the all-consuming—and never really explained—obsession of San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) with Zodiac. Considering the fact that Graysmith has made a kind of cottage industry out of unsolved murders (two books on Zodiac and one on Bob Crane’s murder), perhaps we’re simply supposed to accept whatever it is that causes the nebbishy young cartoonist to turn into the obsessive truth-seeker finally depicted in the film. All the film ever gives us as reasons are a couple of references: the somewhat megalomaniacal claim that if he doesn’t do it no one will and his stated “need” to “look into the eyes” of the killer. My guess is that this is supposed to reflect our own collective fascination with serial killers, though it’s debatable exactly how many of us are likely to identify with a guy who sacrifices his career and marriage (the disintegration of which is depicted in the most transparent manner imaginable) to the obsession.
Another—and perhaps greater—problem lies in the fact that upon examination Zodiac seems not only a somewhat inept killer (two of his victims survived his attacks), but one made in large part out of bluster and PR. It’s unclear, for example, how many of the killings he claimed were even committed by him, and his most notorious threat—waylaying a school bus and killing all the children on it—only found expression in Don Siegel’s effective but alarmingly fascist Dirty Harry (1971), with its ersatz Zodiac called Scorpio. (Zodiac is clever enough to reference the earlier film.) This and the fact that Zodiac was never caught makes the film a curiously thrill-free experience. (The film does a kinda, sorta acceptance on faith of Graysmith’s identification of the killer, only to turn around and undermine the solution later by using the phrase “according to Graysmith” when referring to part of his evidence, rather than letting it pass as fact).
The film’s creepiest sequence is a lengthy red-herring offering involving an old movie buff. When the phrase “man is the most dangerous animal of all” ends up in one of Zodiac’s letters to the newspaper, a possible connection is drawn to the Richard Connell short story (invariably referred to as a book in the movie) “The Most Dangerous Game” and its 1932 film incarnation. This stretch of the film has the kind of unholy creepy factor found in the scenes with the murderous child pornographers in Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared (2006), but it goes nowhere and simply stops dead.
Nevertheless, for all its failings Zodiac isn’t actually a bad film. It’s blessed with three good central performances from Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards; an amusingly pompous supporting turn from Brian Cox as high-profile lawyer Melvin Belli; and a positively riveting portrayal from Robert Downey Jr. as Chronicle reporter Paul Avery. Downey’s performance is frankly so good that it overbalances the film, which suffers significantly when he vanishes before the third act. There’s something to be said for a 158-minute movie that manages to hold your attention; still, it’s just not the great accomplishment it’s been painted as. Rated R for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke