| March 6, 2007

At one point in David Fincher’s latest, Zodiac, Melanie (played by Chloë Sevigny) confronts her husband, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist and puzzle enthusiast, over his obsession with the Zodiac case. It is Robert Graysmith’s account of the case and those involved that is the source material for the film. Graysmith is just a political cartoonist at the newspaper covering the case; despite this, the unsolved case consumes his life. His response to his wife forms the heart of this masterpiece of a film.
In their cramped apartment, Graysmith spins on Melanie, his frustration bubbling over, and spits out: “I need to know the truth. I need to look at him. I need to know it’s him.” In that flash of emotional truth–not the violence or dark aesthetic that Fincher is more known for in previous movies like Fight Club or Se7en–the core of this brilliant film is revealed. For Graysmith, this puzzle of a case is about so much more than how its pieces fit together. It’s about a deeper need to know. The kind of need that often can’t be realized without much loss and suffering along the way to its fulfillment.
Zodiac is a triptych of a film. It captivates with its seemless flow between each of its movements. It’s epic in its scope, and yet so personal in its command of intimate detail. It’s part cultural document, capturing the dark end to the Summer of Love as paranoia and fear gripped San Francisco in the late ’60s during the Zodiac’s murderous ten-month rampage, and odd grandstanding through the Chronicle, where Graysmith works. Then the film morphs into one of the most gripping police procedurals I’ve ever seen on screen, as the police pursue lead after lead, fighting the law they uphold to build an impossible case in an era when DNA testing wasn’t a part of their arsenal. Finally, in its best and most potent segment, the film blossoms into a fantastic meditation on obsession. It tracks that need to know as it rifles through the lives of the principals–the lead detectives, Graysmith, his colleagues at the Chronicle, their loved ones–as the case grows cold and the resolution they all crave in different ways becomes more and more impossible.
There are so many elements to the film and story working in absolute harmony here. The performances alone are impeccable. Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as Toschi and Armstrong, the lead San Francisco detectives on the case, form one of the greatest cop duos in recent memory. It’s a high water mark performance for both of them. Each brings immense nuance and detail to their characters. They’re riveting to watch as they work the case and then grapple with the cost of their devotion to such an immense task in their private lives.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith can’t help himself. From the first moment, in a Chronicle meeting, that he sees the Zodiac’s coded message in a cipher delivered to the paper, he’s hooked. Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith with a restrained virtue and innocence that imbues his endless pursuit to know, and imbues the character of Graysmith with a soft sense of tragedy as he digs deeper and deeper into the case and then lets it take him over at the cost of everything he holds dear.
Robert Downey, Jr., delivers a ferocious performance as Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery, who first covers the crime and befriends Graysmith. They form an odd couple as they hash out elements of the case and Avery teaches Graysmith the basic ins and outs of homicide. Graysmith is a boyscout, earnest and clean-living, while Avery is a product of the Hippie Culture and a hard-living cynic. Downey cuts loose with a dark portrait of Avery’s struggle to balance the greatest story of his career with his addictions once he’s drawn through the looking glass of the events he covers and becomes a target of the Zodiac.
There are many more performances to speak of, too many to go into now. This film features numerous bit parts and character performances that lend the whole a richness and spark that sets it apart. Every single player in the whole acquits him or herself wonderfully so. From the malevolent and chilling John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen, the prime suspect; to Phillip Baker Hall as handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill; to Chloë Sevigny as Graysmith’s wife, Melanie. These supporting players drift in and out of the action, spiking the story with marvelous bits of detail and small eddys of tension and relief. It is this kind of detail that breathes life into a story.
I could go on and on about the camera work or the music, but, at the heart of the picture are two elements that I feel are easy to overlook in all of this praise. The first is the unsung hero of the picture–that’s James Vanderbilt’s script. It takes Graysmith’s sprawling, dense book, finds the emotional core of it, and then brings that to life through the characters. The other, even more important element here, is the direction of David Fincher. He displays a confidence and poise hinted at in his previous work, but usually not as evident beneath his flair for visual histrionics or his nihilistic tone. This poise is most evident in the actors’ performances, which are center stage in Zodiac. They command the spotlight and drive the story. Fincher, through this new confidence, this ability to balance all of his elements into one whole without losing his idiosyncratic voice–imbues Zodiac with a pervasive warmth, despite the haunting, dark subject matter of the material. It’s a warmth that’s never been seen in his work before with such clarity. It deepens the darkness and makes it so much more chilling.
Zodiac is a must-see film. It’s a character-driven thriller that turns the conventions of most crime films and thrillers completely on their collective heads and takes you deeper into the true emotional reality of building such a difficult case without the aid of 21st-century forensic science. It takes you inside a sunny time and a place that was fading into a nightmare of fear and paranoia. Zodiac captures the nature of obsession and the inability to let go until you’ve accomplished what you need to accomplish. Zodiac is a film that does what all great films do–it makes you want to see it again, immediately, once the lights come up, after the credits roll.

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