by RISHI AGRAWAL
The Zodiac Killer could be the most famous unidentified serial killer next to Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was never caught mostly because modern forensic theory had not yet developed. The Zodiac Killer, on the other hand, had very little pattern in his killings. The victims could never be identified as The Zodiac Killer took credit for dozens of murders that he most likely did not commit. The evidence available in the case is overwhelming and maddening, and the search for this killer consumes the lives of the three major characters in David Fincher’s latest film.
A newspaper reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), an editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) all try to put the pieces together to a puzzle whose solution cannot be found. They navigate the Zodiac Killer’s taunting through his macabre notes to the San Francisco Examiner and his strange ciphers, some of which have never been decoded. They try to track down witnesses who are difficult to find or may have fled town. They deal with the complications of police procedure when dealings with murders than span several jurisdictions.
The level of detail in this film is staggering as it spans over twenty years of history. At the end of the film, it is not difficult to see how the characters became so obsessed with the case. The audience becomes amateur sleuths weighing the pros and cons of each suspect, scrutinizing them as if we were watching a documentary rather than a narrative. Fincher gives us enough details that we feel like we can play along with this game.
If the details were the only interesting part of the film, then we probably would be better served by a documentary. However, the film rises above being merely a list of facts. The characters come alive with the fantastic interpretations by the actors: Downey as the neurotic hard-drinking reporter, Gyllenhaal as the naive boy scout-like cartoonist, and Ruffalo as the perpetually hungry investigator who loves the attention. They all manifest their obsession in very different ways, which makes their characterizations believable. They avoid the over-the-top broad strokes that normally plague police thrillers.
And the film would be nothing without Fincher’s visual sense. The early 1970s look exactly how we expect them to: the desks, the phones, the automobiles, everything. It almost feels like we are watching an old television show from the era. As the film progresses through time, Fincher subtly changes the clothes and hairstyles. When we finally end up in the early 1990s, the contrast is evident. The visuals are not as in-your-face as in Fincher’s other films, like Se7en or Fight Club, but the subtlety is appreciated.
And Fincher manages to find a way to ramp up the creepy feelings without the shock value. The investigations are punctuated with recreations of some of the killings, which are made more horrible by their understatement. Part of what makes Fincher’s portrait of the Zodiac Killer so terrifying is his nonchalant manner. Fincher paints the killer as a misanthrope. Later in the film, the terror comes from the fact that practically anyone could be the killer. The characters and the audience are unsure who to trust.
Alas, there are problems with the film. Fincher does give the characters small tidbits of personality that leave us wanting more. Toschi, for example, has a love of Animal Crackers. We don’t know enough about him personal life beyond that. We see Graysmith on his first date with his eventual wife, but none of the courtship. Of course, having too many details could distract from the point of the movie and make the film more bloated than it already is.
At 158 minutes, the film does become tiresome after a while. Especially in the final third of the film, it could have used a bit of trimming. Towards the end, we realize that we aren’t going anywhere and are wondering why we’re still along for the ride. Overall, this may not be Fincher’s best or most fun film, it is certainly his most mature. He has curbed his sense of sensationalism and told a thoughtful, engaging story.
3 1/2 stars