In “Zodiac,” Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Robert Graysmith, a former political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who becomes obsessed with finding the serial killer who taunted police and terrorized the Bay Area in the early 1970s. Although it was directed by David Fincher—the man behind “Seven”—this new movie has more in common with Gyllenhaal’s most recent film “Jarhead,” where Gulf War soldiers prepared for war for 2 hours and then saw no real action. Similarly, “Zodiac” is 154 minutes of a mounting police investigation with no resolution.
What Fincher succeeds in doing, though, is achieving a remarkably creepy tone throughout. “Zodiac,” based on two books written by Graysmith, follows no less than four investigators over decades of excruciating disappointment and infatuation. Rather than mining drama from sudden revelations and tense moments like a more traditional thriller, Fincher’s newest is a slow burn. It is at once a police procedural and an epic look at the ruined lives of the men who hunted the Zodiac killer down until they reached a breaking point.
The cultural touchstones are all there. After a vintage Paramount Pictures logo—a nice touch—the movie opens during Fourth of July celebrations in Vallejo, California. Fireworks are shot off in the streets. The jubilation is ironically undercut by a song from the joyous hippie musical “Hair,” whose lyric “How can people be so heartless?” turns ominous given this new context. A correlative treatment is also given to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” which becomes a theme of sorts for the Zodiac, who preys on young couples. Additionally, although Fincher’s film is shot digitally, he employs muted colors and lighting that recalls the movies of the 1970s.
While the period look of “Zodiac” is meticulously drawn, the story itself is also a product of its time. A lack of cooperation between law agencies plagues inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). For audiences used to the advanced technology and camera trickery on “CSI,” their methods will seem archaic and the movie a little old-fashioned. Those difficulties are nothing compared to the endless stream of dead ends and wrong turns that come with a killer who goes public, sending threatening letters and cryptograms to the newspapers.
“Zodiac” plays more like real cop work and less like a swift-moving TV show. The very thing that makes the movie unique is also what makes it frustrating as hell. An hour-long episode of “Law & Order” will have a “Eureka!” moment based on circumstantial evidence right before every commercial break. This kind of ‘instant guilt’ is easier on the audience, and it has become a convention. Every time the detectives in “Zodiac” gain momentum, the weight of pesky issues like the burden of proof ends up sinking their investigations.
Fincher is able to cover the personal lives of the main characters, also including alcoholic journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), in shorthand. Rather than a movie full of Gyllenhaal or Ruffalo arguing with their spouses over how time they spend away from their families, we get an economical view of their home life. Glimpses of the toll that their obsession has taken are all the movie can really afford, and it is convincing enough.
The scope involved in “Zodiac” reminds me of Oliver Stone’s fascination with the Kennedy assassination in “JFK.” Where Stone’s film is a tour de force of bombastic editing and technical expertise, though, Fincher’s vision is a more personal, restrained one. The long running time and constant jumping forward in time will throw off those expecting a tidy ending, but the cumulative effect is devastating.
The audience is like Graysmith, who says that he craves that one moment of recognition with the killer that will assure him of his guilt. A 1978 letter mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle, apparently from the Zodiac killer, reads “I am waiting for a good movie about me. Who will play me?” The movie is here, but his question remains unanswered.