An obsession that cannot be satisfied erodes the souls of the central characters in “Zodiac,” a mesmerizing account of the infamous, never-solved Bay Area serial killings as seen from the perspectives of several men who spent years trying to crack the case. Conveying an astonishing array of information across a long narrative arc while still maintaining dramatic rhythm and tension, this adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s bestseller reps by far director David Fincher’s most mature and accomplished work. It is decidedly not sensationalistic along the lines of “Seven,” hardcore fans of which may be disappointed by new pic’s methodical nature and unavoidable inconclusiveness. But discerning auds worldwide will find deep satisfaction, pointing to moderate but sustained B.O. given proper distrib nurturing.
From the exceptional coherence with which James Vanderbilt’s script grapples with complex events and dozens of characters to the journalistic setting, procedural format, era in question and the very presence of David Shire as composer, the cinematic touchstone for “Zodiac” is clearly “All the President’s Men.”
And yet the feel of the new film is very different. Due to the extended timeframe, West Coast setting, working-class characters, preponderance of rock songs and, most decisively, Harris Savides’ precise yet fluid HD camerawork, the pic possesses a kind of seedy dreaminess that most strongly recalls another indelible epic of ’70s California, “Boogie Nights.” Both films occupy that rarefied high ground where audacious artistry and nervy commercial filmmaking occasionally converge.
Beginning with the startling July 4, 1969, shooting of two teenagers in a makeout parking lot, the pic jumps ahead to the moment a month later when the culprit sent portions of a cipher to three Bay Area newspapers and threatened to continue killing unless they were immediately published.
Of course, he went ahead anyway, attacking another amorous couple by a lake in Napa. Unblinkingly filmed, the daylight slashing is agonizing and bloody but is the last explicit sequence of its kind in the picture, which then almost entirely assumes the points of view of those who struggled in vain to nail the taunting, bedeviling psychopath.
Just as the locus of “President’s Men” was the Washington Post, so the home base of “Zodiac” is a newsroom — this time the San Francisco Chronicle’s, a space where funkiness has won the battle with respectability and there’s not a female reporter in sight.
Goateed crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), with the air of a dissolute dandy, takes on the case. Unofficially, so does the paper’s bashful new cartoonist, Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who manages to deduce the meaning of the cipher and its reference to “The Most Dangerous Game,” the short story and film about the hunting of mankind.
Once the the self-named Zodiac strikes in San Francisco proper, the city cops join the hunt, led by homicide Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).
Despite the fact the Zodiac provides hidden clues in his texts and leaves behind partial evidence at crime scenes, the cops make little headway. Much of the early going is devoted to Toschi, Avery and the self-appointed Graysmith trying to connect the dots while the public remains on edge.
As the investigation fans out, the cops’ attention is drawn to an uncouth, hulking loner, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), who has a history of “touching” youngsters. Despite uncanny “coincidences” (Allen wears a Zodiac watch and is a “Most Dangerous Game” fan), no conclusive proof ties him to the crimes, so the search goes on.
And on. After several years, the trail has gone cold and those who have followed it are old before their time. Worst off is Avery, who’s a physical wreck — a victim of his addictions and obsessions. By the late ’70s, Toschi’s star has fallen; he’s been moved out of homicide, his old partner Armstrong’s earlier decision to quit having been proven prescient. Still, Toschi is intermittently willing to help the ever-enthusiastic Graysmith, who is now industriously retracing everyone’s steps with the intention of writing a book about the case.
Graysmith’s search leads him back to Allen, and one encounter the earnest fellow has with a former Allen associate is breathtakingly suspenseful. Graysmith’s eventual conclusions may possess an element of wish fulfillment, but are about as convincing as circumstantial evidence will allow.
Throughout the film’s 2½ hours, Fincher maintains the sort of locked-in, ultra-focused hold on his material he’s displayed before, but with a touch that, if not exactly gentle, is less ferocious and overbearing. Due in part to the times at which certain scenes were shot, as well as to the limpid quality of the HD images (“Zodiac” is the latest big production shot with the Thomson Viper Filmstream Camera), a certain twilight, afternoon-into-darkest-night atmosphere dominates, appropriately enough given the characters’ slow descent into the murky abyss.
There’s no showing off with technique this time, no pandering to the public’s baser instincts, just extremely disciplined filmmaking in which the camera is always in exactly the right place. Notably imaginative are the transitions and means of conveying the passage of time, marked at one point by the stop-frame construction of the landmark Transamerica Building.
Playing the author of the book on which the film is based, Gyllenhaal carries the burden of the large structure capably and lightly. Starting as an almost naive foil for Avery’s urbane cynicism, Graysmith ultimately sustains his obsession longer than anyone, and with endurance comes reward, even if his complete immersion costs him his second wife (Chloe Sevigny).
Downey richly amplifies Avery’s booze-and-drug-fueled glibness and, later, his descent into disease and disenchanted seclusion. Most resembling a young Columbo, Ruffalo has a number of choice moments, but the role seems oddly truncated; one doesn’t really get the sense of a legendary cop who served as the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s character in “Bullitt,” Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” (itself based on the Zodiac murders and referenced herein) and Michael Douglas’ character in “The Streets of San Francisco.”
Performances and casting are impeccable down to the smallest role. Brian Cox socks over his extended cameo as San Francisco’s showboating celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli. Also making striking impressions are Charles Fleischer as a strange film buff acquaintance of the possible killer, Philip Baker Hall as an ostensibly reliable handwriting expert and, above all, Lynch as the unsettling prime suspect.
On top of everything else, “Zodiac” manages an almost unerringly accurate evocation of the workaday San Francisco of 35-40 years ago. Forget the distorted emphasis on hippies and flower-power that many such films indulge in; this is the city as it was experienced by most people who lived and worked there. For this, hats off to production designer Donald Graham Burt, costume designer Casey Storm and the hairstylists, among many others. The only inaccuracy catchable on one viewing: the too-early presence on the streets of diamond lanes, which were not introduced until the ’70s.
Shire’s subtle score, which comes increasingly into play as the action accelerates, effectively complements the double-soundtrack’s worth of pop tunes headlined by Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” which hauntingly frames the picture.