In the past few years Mad Men has been given a ton of praise for, amongst other things, its incredible ability to capture the imagery, culture and general state of mind of the era it is depicting, both in the decaying stature of white, male privilege as well as the ever so faint heartbeat of the change that is moments from emerging in America. David Fincher's criminally underrated Zodiac is certainly a film with a similar attachment to such a style, all be it set a decade later and over a much longer period of time, transition seamlessly and poetically, making even his clear moments of large periods of transition seem effortless and completely within the framework of the lengthy film. As of late, I find myself bemoaning everything that is associated with Fincher's Fight Club, mostly for its following and fans who believe it to be the sole moment of revolutionary cinema. I am certainly behind the quality of Fight Club as a film, but much like the blind supporters of the beatniks it has its rather obvious flaws, ones that seem to emerge with age. Of course, this is not about what will, undoubtedly, prove to be the dynamic directors most well-remembered tim but is, instead; about what might tragically be his most overlooked. Zodiac is a meticulously designed and deceptively straightforward film, that manages to take one of America's most baffling serial killer cases and turn it into a gripping human drama that is both narratively tight and cinematically profound. This, of course, is of little surprise, after all, we are talking about a filmmaker who always proves consistent, even when doing something completely out of his comfort zone with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Even his Netflix series House of Cards stands shoulders above most things being circulated in theaters at this very moment. Much as it seems to be the case with so many of Fincher's films Zodiac demands that its viewers be both fully invested in their characters day to day activities, while also understanding that since they engage with an inherently terrible system that all persons are susceptible to failure, greed and ultimate a brutal downfall, and that doing the right thing is rarely reward, if not outright punished.
Zodiac, as should be little surprise, follows the emergence and tracking down of the infamous Zodiac Killer, who spent a considerable portion of the seventies randomly killing individuals in, and around, the San Francisco Bay Area. Of course, as is the case with most crime thrillers the killer is only the secondary subject, Zodiac instead focuses on people attempting to solve the puzzle and rather literal enigma that is the killer who called himself Zodiac. Firstly, there is the established, all be it, cynical news reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) who sees this case as a means to blast his career to the next level, pulling no punches in his attempts to track down everything he can regarding the case. Within the same news agency is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose life as a cartoonist takes a sharp turn when he decides to decode the letter from the Zodiac, an act that leads him to become irreversibly obsessed with the case, skipping work and eventually ignoring his live-in girlfriend and children with the hope of meeting and aiding in the arrest of the killer. Finally there is the cop assigned to the various Zodiac related deaths, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) who realizes that the paperwork and legal expectations of his every action result in it being nearly impossible to ever arrest or come close to the killer, who made quite certain that his tracks were well-covered. At various points throughout the narrative the three interact, although never simultaneously, in some cases Robert and Paul work together within the confines of their office, while in another situation Robert approaches David after a film screening at a local theater to explain his unusual relationship to the case and while David continues work on the case, it is eventually Robert who takes the reigns on finding the killer, in the process becoming uncertain as to whether it is justice or curiosity that keeps him going. In the end, enough minor pieces of information assemble to allow Robert to make eye contact with the killer, in a brief but tense moment and the film then cuts to one of the Zodiac Killer's survivors identifying him in a photograph, allowing after nearly a quarter century for the killer to be brought to trial.
Zodiac is a film that is fully aware of its length, never rushing through a scene or overlooking an aspect to assure a comfortable runtime, which is something, unfortunately, that appears to have worked against it in its box office numbers. I, however, found the film to be excellent and worth every moment invested, I would even go so far as to say that I was a bit upset when the credits did begin to role, because I thoroughly enjoyed its subject matter and execution. I, however, say all this to consider what is going on within Fincher's relatively calculated and contemplative film. The answer seems to be rather obvious, it is a film about tracking down a killer who is not only excellent at being elusive, but also seems keenly aware about the general misdirection and time spent organizing and justifying efforts within the police force, which allows for him to enact random murders and various misdirections, all while those chasing him are still getting the go ahead. This woe of bureaucracy does, however, come with a certain degree of safety. When David engages in situations with the individual who does prove to be the Zodiac killer he is afforded the comfort of back up and an advantage in the way of guns and safety, where as, when Robert begins his independent investigation he is forced to navigate spaces alone, although in the films most tense seen this loneliness rears its ugly head when Robert comes to encounter a person whose ties to the Zodiac make his every movement worth questioning to the point of paranoia. So Zodiac seems to suggest that dealing with crime requires a navigation between the protections of bureaucracy, while also remembering that many rules are to be altered as necessary. Of course, as the narrative also suggests, living in such a liminal world can prove detrimental, at least that appears to have been the case with Paul. Another layer is of course the notion of time and authority, something that is always working against the characters best interests even in the brief moments of earnest happiness or positive encounters within the film. Yet it also suggests that with time, all injustice will eventually be reprimanded.
Key Scene: There are two time transitions in this film one of a tower being built and the other solely using music that are brilliantly jarring and help to yank the viewers back in after long narrative lulls.
This is cinema gold and was long out of print on bluray. It has recently returned to shelves and is worth grabbing before it witnesses another tragic fate.