Top critical review
I am the Zodiac
on February 23, 2014
Lately I've been on a bit of a serial killer spree, checking out movies about/based on real-life serial killers and the times they were active.
So I was fully expecting to be blown away by "Zodiac," David Fincher's account of the Zodiac Killer (whom I had never heard of before). But Fincher's talents are drowned in a sea of minutial facts here, leading to an interesting but not very compelling narrative about a cartoonist who becomes obsessed with catching a serial killer. It doesn't help that most of the best actors are wasted.
In 1969, San Francisco Chronicle began receiving encrypted letters from a serial killer who called himself Zodiac, taking credit for past murders and mentioning his plans for future kills. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is only a political cartoonist, but his knack for puzzles allows him to figure out the code that Zodiac is using. Despite not being taken seriously by his fellows, crime writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) begins to listen to his theories.
After three more killings, police detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is put on the case, and Zodiac begins threatening Avery, and even calls a celebrity lawyer on the radio. Then... he vanishes without a trace. But Graysmith remains obsessed with Zodiac's identity -- and when the killings and phantom calls begin again some years later, he contacts Toschi in hopes of finally identifying the serial killer.
David Fincher is an absolutely brilliant director, and he's clearly trying to do his best with this movie. But his talents seem to be squandered in this story, partly because it seems to rely so much on facts and a sense of realism. He is to be admired for sticking mostly to Graysmith's facts rather than wildly sensationalizing them... but that means that the movie has long stretches of quibbling over puzzles and inconsequential clues.
Realistic, yes. Fascinating... no. Honestly, the most intriguing parts of the movie are the parts that DON'T involve Graysmith -- the radio conversations, the murders, and Toschi's efforts to solve the case. It's made all the more intriguing because Fincher has Zodiac voiced by three different actors, spreading doubt through your mind about whether there is just one person or more than one.
But whenever the story swings back to Graysmith, any tension seems to just quietly leak out of the film. And since the movie's events take place over several years, the tension comes in very small bursts, spread very far apart, which only end up leading to an anticlimax of epic proportions.
Part of that is because Graysmith is just not a very interesting character -- for the first two-thirds of the movie, Jake Gyllenhaal does little except look doe-eyed and stare intently at papers. He seems like a cipher for the audience's participation. Marc Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. both do excellent jobs with their roles, although Downey is reduced to doing little except stomping around and drinking.
The normally brilliant Fincher seems to be on autopilot for much of "Zodiac," which has some glorious actors but a lead character who sucks the energy out of the film. Factually interesting, but kind of a drag to sit through.