By: Michael McQueen on June 19, 2007  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt
Country: USA
Australian Release Date: May 17, 2007
Distributor: Roadshow
Running Time: 157 minutes
Movies that claim some affiliation with a true story are usually an uneven proposition in horror. Usually, the 'real events' that the movie is supposedly based on have been compromised through artistic license (read: embellishment) for the sake of entertainment. Horror is – by its very nature - a genre of embellishment and excess; when a horror movie lays claim to some factual basis, more often than not the actual events bear little or no resemblance to what has been translated to film. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; in fact, there have been many good horror films, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that are more 'inspired' by actual events, as opposed to a strictly factual re-telling of them. The plot of Zodiac essentially revolves around a series of homicides that occurred in America during the seventies by a serial killer who called himself the Zodiac. The case became infamous when the killer sent a series of taunting letters to major newspapers, often including coded messages which supposedly would reveal his identity. Despite best efforts, the Zodiac killer was never caught and the case still remains a mystery. The killings served as inspiration for the movie, Dirty Harry, in which a homicidal maniac named Scorpio send similar provocative messages to the police. The rub here is that Zodiac claims much more than 'inspiration'; the film posits a theory about who was behind the unsolved murders, based on the investigation – and eventual book - by a cartoonist who worked for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the murders.

Director David Fincher (of the similarly themed Se7en and cult favourite Fight Club) does a remarkable job here balancing out the multiple perspectives of numerous protagonists whilst still capturing the tense mood of the time. There's a lot of detail in the plot and a lot of names to remember, but Fincher ensures that the audience is never overwhelmed by pacing the action appropriately. At just under three hours, Zodiac is a long movie, but it never feels arduous or drawn out; in fact the extra running time allows the audience to really get a feel for all the players involved, rather than leaving important minor characters underdeveloped and focusing all the attention on Jake Gyllenhaal. Admirable effort has gone into elevating this film from the usual serial-killer genre conventions by examining how each character is affected, so there's an impressive multidimensionality to even bit players in the proceedings. Thankfully, this also means that gory forensic aspects take a back seat in the visuals, and most of the film is devoted to building suspense and developing tension between the characters. The overall energy of the film is derived from what is hidden, rather than what's explicit and, as such, violence is really only introduced when it is essential to the narrative's flow and coherence. That said, the violence itself is quite frightening, mostly as Fincher deliberately refuses to stylise it at all. Stabbings and gunshots are all rendered in real-time, and the camera deliberately shies away from the viscera, preferring to focus on the victim's faces as they die. The results are very creepy, but highly memorable.

Of course, the main focus on the movie is Robert Graysmith's (Gyllenhaal) investigation into the murders. Once the killing spree inexplicably halted and police investigations ultimately stalled, Robert began his own manhunt to find and expose the killer, using mostly hunches, ingenuity and his own obsessively collected stockpile of evidence. After a few false starts and plenty of dead ends, Graysmith eventually hypothesised that the killer was Arthur Leigh Allen – one of many suspects who was acquitted based on mismatched handwriting samples and fingerprint evidence. The film ends with post-scripts explaining that Allen died of a heart attack shortly after Graysmith's book was released, and that a DNA test in 2002 proved inconclusive. The ending is very satisfying as it leaves open many possibilities for alternate theories to be formed, rather than wrapping up everything neatly into a package and dumping it in the audiences lap. Ultimately, it is the lack of a satisfying verdict that makes Zodiac a much more sinister prospect than other serial-killer movies…that, and the chilling addition of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" to the soundtrack; I'll never listen to that song the same way again *shudder*

All the actors involved do a superb job; even old fogie Brian Cox brings an impressive enthusiasm to his role. Special mention must be given to Robert Downey Jr, though, who does a spectacular portrayal of drunken reporter Paul Avery, who himself was personally threatened by the Zodiac killer and quickly descended into alcoholism and obscurity. John Carroll Lynch departs from his usual 'loveable fat guy' role into the far bigger shoes of Arthur Leigh Allen; a man who is inherently creepy, yet naturally reserved and composed. Lynch delivers a finely nuanced performance that isn't over-cooked and fuels the 'is he, or isn't he?' enigma that is central to Zodiac's dramatic tension.

Overall, Zodiac is quite a powerful movie; it is certainly a cut above the formulaic and fairly predictable serial-killer genre films. Although it's reasonably long, the pacing never feels sluggish, and the performances of Robert Downey Jr and Jake Gyllenhaal are worth checking out. A very creepy film that is highly recommended.
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