Zodiac Review

Zodiac is a 2007 crime thriller written by James Vanderbilt and directed by David Fincher. The film is based off the real life account of Robert Graysmith, a newspaper cartoonist who independently attempted to solve the Zodiac murders.

Story
The story is focused on the infamous unsolved Zodiac murders that occurred between the 60s and 70s in California. In particular, it focuses on two characters obsessed with the investigation: Graysmith, our previously mentioned cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Dave Toschi, a homicide detective (Mark Ruffalo).

The pacing for the movie is a bit weird. Since the actual events of the Zodiac murders happened over a period of almost a decade there's a lot of time jumping to get get to certain, important events in the process of the investigation. This results in the movie not really feeling like it has a proper structure. I mean, it has a beginning, middle and end, but the the middle is entirely comprised of following lead after lead of the case which kind of makes me feel like this would've done better pacing wise as a TV show, like every episode would focus on a different lead or break in the case. This also would've helped us to have more time with the characters and let us see how they're dealing with the case in their lives. We get a bit of this in the movie, but the film is clearly more interested in solving the case than studying how this effects the characters.

However, this story does have an advantage to being in a film: it's able to keep up the intensity. By having it paced so that every new murder or revelation is followed by another murder or revelation keeps the plot moving forward, with the characters following up on leads or motivated to find the next big clue.

The story also does a great job at not choosing a character to definitively be the Zodiac killer. I appreciate that they didn't feel the need to rewrite history when it would've been so easy to have a big revelation scene at the end. They do imply heavily as to who they author thought the Zodiac was, but they never outright say it was him, so it's fine.

Something that I find fascinating about the films David Fincher chooses to direct is that almost 90% of the dialogue is exposition, but he manages to turn it into drama. In other words, he's a fantastic director of mystery. Drama in a mystery story is completely dictated by what the characters do or don't know, especially in a murder mystery where the goal is the find the killer and arrest him. If there's a piece of information that can lead them to the killer or a lead that turns into a dead end, that's dramatic, and when a character explains it it feels like a crucial element of the plot rather than pointless digression.

Technical
David Fincher's signature style of camera work is on display here, with steady shots, very little hand held and limited use of closeup shots. It's also impressive how he can make a conversation scene feel cinematic just through where the camera is. There's one conversation where a group of three officers are questioning a Zodiac suspect. There's an over the shoulder shot from the perspective of one officer as he's looking at the suspect. It then cuts to another officer as he asks the suspect a question, but instead of an over the should shot we get a single of the officer, showing that the suspect isn't invested in a conversation with him. Eventually, it goes to an over the shoulder shot from the perspective of the questioning officer, signifying that the suspect has finally given him his full attention. Visual storytelling like this is fantastic and not enough filmmakers take hold of these opportunities when they should.

Blocking is also something that Fincher uses to its fullest effect and I really appreciate that, because I feel that blocking, as in where the actors are on screen, has been greatly dismissed as a storytelling device. There's a scene where Graysmith is talking with his wife and the camera is from her perspective. He goes into the bathroom and out of her site while she's talking to him, signifying his absence in her life as his obsession with finding the Zodiac killer consumes him.

The lighting also helps this film work really well. A lot of it is in the dark, with only a strange orange lighting to light each scene. While this does seem like realistic lighting, it gives another effect. Something about the shade they used reminds me of decay, like something slowly dying. It's very unsettling, but in a good way since it's appropriate to the story.

The acting from the entire cast is excellent, but slightly unbalanced. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a performance that's really unusual for a Hollywood leading man. He plays a quiet, unsure, humble, small voiced man which is a complete departure from the confident, suave, collected character you'd usually see somebody like Gyllenhaal play. Robert Downey Jr. is good, but he seems to be in a completely different movie. He's laid-back, frat boy delivery is completely at odds with the tone and the other performances given by his costars. I suppose it works since his character is an attention seeking alcoholic, but it just feels like I'm watching a jerkier version of Tony Stark. Mark Ruffalo probably has the most naturalistic performance and therefore really doesn't stand out that much when I look back on it. Don't get me wrong, he does well, but he kind of gets lost in the shuffle between Gyllenhaal's subdued nice guy and Downey's Iron Man audition.

Summary: Zodiac might not be Fincher's best movie, but it's still a David Fincher movie and that's not nothing. The acting is great, the pacing is good, it's still some of the best directing in the business and is just a hell of a thriller. Check this one out.

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