Serial killer movies aren’t my bag. And despite the public’s general fascination with forensic shows like CSI, I have no interest in watching shows and movies about grizzly deaths. But the draw of leads Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. in David Fincher’s Zodiac overpowered my weak stomach, and I gave it a try. And I’m glad I did, because I found it suspenseful without being squirmy, and it was an all-around great film.
Zodiac follows the lives of newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) and Inspector David Toschi (Ruffalo) as they each try to uncover the identity of the famous “Zodiac killer” of the 1970’s. San Francisco is rocked by the multiple murders committed by this media-hungry, boastful killer who sends coded messages to the local newspapers, demanding that they print them on the front page. Robert soon becomes obsessed with finding out who is behind the murders for his own peace of mind, while David just wants to close the case. Zodiac alternates between the storylines of the two men as they become more deeply involved in the investigation, and in turn find less leads and more roadblocks.
For a movie about a serial killer, Zodiac has surprisingly little gore. There is one pretty graphic murder scene (and it’s only intensified by the fact that it takes place in broad daylight), but Fincher certainly doesn’t go overboard with the violence. With the mysterious nature of the Zodiac killer and his identity, I think that the film is smart to limit the scenes involving the Zodiac. His actions seem random (though it becomes obvious that everything is actually quite calculated), so to punctuate the story with the occasional shocking death in the first third of the film is very effective. The film takes place over a number of years, and even though Robert continues his obsessive quest to crack the case, the Zodiac killer is no longer sending letters to the press, and seems to have gone into hiding. The film naturally evolves from a story about a serial killer terrorizing a city, into a story about one man’s obsession. I was really impressed by how easily Fincher transitioned between different storylines, and dealt with time lapses of years.
That being said, I did find that the film dragged a little bit in the middle, when a lot of the focus was on Inspector Toschi’s unfruitful attempts to crack the case. The opening hour of the film is undeniably exciting, with the flurry of the killings. To have the story told mostly through the information that the newspaper receives is interesting. When the story switches focus to Toschi, it becomes more conventional. How many movies have we seen about police officers trying to catch a murderer? I loved the last third of the film because, even though it takes place years after the Zodiac killings, it’s fraught with suspense, and personal drama with Gyllenhaal’s character. With a runtime of nearly three hours, I think that Zodiac could have been even stronger if they’d trimmed about ten minutes from the middle.
Although the storylines flip back and forth between Robert and David, I think Gyllenhaal is the star of this movie. He plays the bookish type well, and he handles Robert’s growing desperation perfectly. He doesn’t go over-the-top with his obsession, but he makes the development of his character clear. Robert Downey Jr. makes the best of his limited screen time as a reporter for the newspaper, and steals every scene that he’s in. His charisma is unstoppable, and he adds some welcome humour to the film.
For a movie about a serial killer, Zodiac is surprisingly low-key. But the lack of sensationalism doesn’t mean that it’s not fraught with tension and drama. With three very strong performances, a distinctive mood, and an interesting, thorough character study of Robert Graysmith, Zodiac feels like a fully realised film. It knows what it wants to be, and while it deals with many different facets of an infamous story, it never feels muddled.