#3 – Top Movies of 2007
“Before I kill you, I’m going to throw your baby out the window.”
Rated R. 2-Disc Director’s Cut out on DVD. Directed by David Fincher. Based on the book by Robert Graysmith. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Chloe Sevigny.
As a native of San Francisco, the story of the Zodiac killer carries a special significance for me even though the events took place before I was born and only one of his documented murders actually took place in the city (on the same block my sister went to school). The Bay Area’s most famous killer (and the inspiration for Dirty Harry), the Zodiac is one of the most notorious American serial killers, combining the random terror of the Son of Sam (who came a decade later and copied some of Zodiac’s M.O.) and the unsolved mystery of Jack the Ripper. Because of the latter, the case maintains a strong following even today as it remains open.
Given that I had a prior interest in the story, and that David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) is probably my favorite modern director, Zodiac is a movie I went in expecting to like. It did not disappoint. From the chilling opening scene all the way through the entire timeline of the case, Zodiac is captivating throughout, with Fincher taking a script that is mostly exposition and creating suspense and a consistent mood without overdoing it. He evokes a good sense of the era without in-your-face production design and makes especially good use of Donovan’s “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man.” A lot of criticism of the movie rests on its 2 hour & 40 minute runtime, but at no point did the movie drag or feel overlong. If anything, it allows Fincher the time to really tell the story the way he wanted to.
Based on a novel by former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, the film mostly follows him, as played by Jake Gyllenhaal and tells the story through his experiences. The Zodiac killer is famous for the letters and cryptograms he sent to newspapers during his killing spree, and much of the action in the first hour of the film focuses around these letters in the Chronicle’s newsroom. Graysmith finds an ally in Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the lead crime reporter for the Chronicle, who indulges his amateur sleuthing. While he doesn’t enter the story until later, a large section follows lead detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) as he tries to track down Zodiac.
Gyllenhaal is uneven as Graysmith, he is a little too earnest and unconvincing in the first half of the movie, but comes on strong by the end. Downey Jr. is pitch perfect as the brash, alcoholic Avery, and Ruffalo is solid as usual as the increasingly world-weary Toschi, the real-life basis for Steve McQueen’s Bullitt. There are a ton of other recognizable cast members, and the acting is especially strong in the setpieces that show Zodiac in action.
Zodiac is, at its heart, a movie about obsession. The narrative is split into two parts — the first focuses largely on the killings, highlighting four events, three of which are confirmed to be the work of Zodiac and one which is a bit more questionable. The second half focuses much more on Graysmith and Toschi, trying to crack the case long after it has escaped the public eye. The movie tries to show why people become obsessed, whether it’s Zodiac and his killings, or the characters and their quest to track him down. Fincher is a notoriously obsessive director, and perhaps because of this, the film feels very personal, and its exploration of the consequences of obsession finds the film at its strongest. In particular, there is a great scene towards the end which is brilliantly directed and acted. Zodiac is one of the best films of 2007, and does justice to a great story.