Not only is Zodiac (2007) one of the best mystery movies ever produced, it is also one of the best true crime films. It pulls the viewer into the late 60s and 70s as the dark figure of the Zodiac serial killer descends on the San Francisco Bay area, striking fear into the residents. Even those normally looking in from the outside, the media, are drawn into the nightmarish, labyrinthine world of the Zodiac, when he begins writing letters and sending them to the local newspapers.
From here, the film centers on two very different newspaper men and a detective, as all three become obsessed with the ongoing case. Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who is described by another character as a “boyscout”. Graysmith works with columnist Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), a publicity hound and substance abuser, and the two brainstorm together about the Zodiac case. Enter Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) into the fray of accumulating information and all three characters (based on real people involved in the case) become more and more gripped by the case. Especially Graysmith, who wades into the onslaught of clues that come flooding in with the eagerness of a Hardy brother or Nancy Drew (or a Fred or Velma for that matter).
The amount of clues, facts, leads, and other detailed information in the film is so copious, in fact, that I would suggest that those watching this film at home turn on the subtitles, otherwise you might miss some details here and there: not that it would ruin the movie, but part of the fun of Zodiac is participating with these guys as they amass all of this information, sort through it, and follow the leads wherever they go. This could all turn quite dreary, depressing, or even dull, but rest assured, you are in masterful hands. Award winning director David Fincher is at the helm here, and he’s at his very best in Zodiac. Part of what he achieves is in the Robert Graysmith character, played by Gyllenhaal with such a wide-eyed, eager bounce in his step that his character shines a kind of light into the dark corners of the investigation. Director Fincher wisely uses this gung-ho innocence as a valuable resource throughout the film, while still allowing lighter moments to come through other characters, too.
And so the film invites the viewer into the compulsion of its characters to find the truth, to fit the jagged puzzle pieces together, and you will want to follow Zodiac down whatever rabbit hole lies around the next corner. If it is not clear already, this film is more interested in the guys looking for the killer, than the killer himself. It is an epic about obsession.
A note on the Director’s Cut of Zodiac: Usually I prefer the shorter theatrical versions to a director’s cut, but in this case I think the director’s cut (just a few minutes longer) is preferable. The film’s uncanny ability to reflect the passage of time, of years decayed into the past, opportunities missed, and time destroyed is at it’s very best in the director’s version.
Rating: **** (out of ****): Masterpiece