Written by James Vanderbilt
Based on the book by Robert Graysmith
Directed by David Fincher
I think one of the most annoying film tropes of the last couple of decades is the prevalence of what I like to call the "grandmaster criminal" -- you know the type, it's the serial killer/bank robber/whatever who is so on-the-ball, so ahead-of-the-game, that he (or she, although I can't think of a female example off the top of my head) can see several moves ahead of those pursuing him, know things he can't possibly know, and in general just be omnisciently threatening. (This is probably my single biggest gripe with The Dark Knight.) Done occasionally and done well, this is the kind of thing that can be creepy, even downright terrifying -- the killer knows everything about you and you have to be even smarter to survive. It's such an effective technique, though, that it's been used in countless movies and TV shows (there was even an episode of Law & Order: SVU in which the detectives chased a rapist/murderer who "left clues" for them to find) and, to my mind, has lost much of its power. Oh, of course the killer can see through brick walls and know exactly where you keep your weapon and can figure out the name of your daughter etc etc etc.
While this trope really got its start with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps its greatest usage was to be found a few years later, in Seven, David Fincher's brilliant serial killer thriller. Seven's killer, played by Kevin Spacey, leaves a sequence of bread crumbs for the cops to follow, taunts the police in 911 calls, and generally plays the whole chessmaster serial killer game like a fiddle. Its finale is the climax of the killer's game, and despite the gaps in logic works like a sucker-punch to the unsuspecting viewer. (The viewer is not very likely to be sucker-punched, however, as the ending was so amazing as the be endlessly parodied and is simply a part of pop culture today.)
All of this is a prelude to the subject at hand, for I feel that David Fincher's newest serial killer film is a sort of reversal of what he did with Seven; if not a repudiation of the trope, it's certainly a counterexample. Zodiac is based on the details of a very famous real-life serial killer who has never been captured, and so instead of being about meticulous planning and brilliant planning on the part of the killer, is really about the frustration and weight that set in when desire becomes obsession becomes failed multi-year obsession. The zodiac killer captivates the San Fransisco Bay area for years and is never caught, partly due to the fact that he is good at covering his tracks, but mostly through simple police miscommunication and missed evidence.
After an opening showing the Zodiac's first killing (actually his second, but that's a detail that will come out later), the film introduces us to Robert Graysmith, played admirably by Jake Gyllenhall. Graysmith is a cartoonist with the San Francisco Chronicle, and would eventually go on to write two best-selling books about the Zodiac case (which I have not read), upon which this film is based. In writer James Vanderbilt and Fincher's hands, Graysmith is portrayed as a clean-living but naive kid who gets involved in the mystery primarily through his love of puzzles. The Zodiac sends the Chronicle a cypher, you see, and Graysmith eventually figures out that the knowledge needed to come up with the code could be found using only a handful of books from the public library.
He gives this information to Robert Downey Jr., electrifyingly portraying Chronicle reporter Paul Avery. Avery is a hard-partying kind of guy with a bottle of booze in his desk and numerous implied sexual liaisons -- his first reaction to Graysmith's information is to wonder aloud what the kid's angle is in trying to solve the mystery. Over time the two will share information and interpretations on the case without ever really becoming friends.
While the first killings were outside SF proper, eventually the Zodiac strikes a cab driver in the city, bringing in a pair of homicide detectives led by David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). Toschi is the real-life detective on whom Steve McQueen based his Bullitt character, and Ruffalo captures a kind of rumpled charm and keen intellect that is generally the goal for movie detectives, but rarely achieved as well as here. In contrast with Seven's fictional detectives who use brilliant psychological insight to catch their man, Ruffalo has precious little information with which to guide him, and over the years shown in the film becomes more and more weary of the world in general and the case specifically. Late in the film Toschi will see Dirty Harry, loosely based on the Zodiac killings, and will walk out of the theater in disgust.
If my descriptions of Zodiac seem meandering and pointless, it's largely because the whole film is largely just a sort of big shaggy dog story. Characters show up and seem important only to be discarded minutes later, erstwhile protagonists disappear for much of the film's running length, and while the film finds a sort of resolution towards the end, it's far from certain what has actually transpired in the murders themselves. I'm stepping lightly over the details of the investigation, because so much of the pleasure of the film comes from the slow accumulation of evidence over the nearly three-hour running time. Graysmith the real-life author obviously believes that he has figured out the solution to the Zodiac killings, and the movie shows his version, but a quick perusal of websites devoted to the Zodiac case show that Graysmith's version is, at best, far from the only interpretation of the events.
This, really, becomes a weakness of the film. Fincher is smart enough to leave plenty of room for doubt that Graysmith's version of events is the real one, but in the need for some sort of "resolution" the film ignores other points of view. Of course Robert Graysmith is the hero of the movie based on his own book, but other long-term enthusiasts of the case find his book self-aggrandizing and that he overlooks contradictory evidence in his attempt to put forward his own theory of the crime.
The film's other major flaw is the subplot about Graysmith's home life with his wife, played by Chloe Sevigny. Sevigny is a good actress and does what she can with the part, and it is she who provides a sort of counterpoint to Gyllenhall's obsessions towards the end of the film, but she doesn't have a lot of material with which to work, and ends up seeming like the kind of nagging wife that always seems to be in the background of the hero's home life in an action movie. It would have been best to just drop the personal stuff altogether, I think, as these sequences weigh down the narrative just when it needs to be sprinting to the finish.
Overall, Zodiac is an amazingly-acted and well-written film about a real-life incident that somehow leaves the viewer feeling empty. It's absorbing through its length and of course (this being a David Fincher film) technically superb, but in the week since I watched it I find that very little sticks in my mind. It is to be appreciated for telling the story of a real serial killer without the flashiness and other thriller-like elements so overused in Grandmaster Killer movies and is a very entertaining way of spending its running time, but Graysmith's self-aggrandizing and a slew of logical holes in the thillerish finish tend to make this more of a simple entertainment than a Film For the Ages.
For my money, the best David Fincher film I've seen is still Panic Room. Heresy, I know.