Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chlo� Sevigny, Ed Setrakian, John Getz, John Terry, Candy Clark, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, June Raphael, Ciara Hughes, Lee Norris, Patrick Scott Lewis, Pell James, Philip Baker Hall, David Lee Smith, Jason Wiles, Charles Schneider, James Carraway, Tom Verica, Jimmi Simpson, Doan Ly, Joel Bissonnette, Zach Grenier, Adam Goldberg, James LeGros, Charles Fleischer, Clea DuVall, Paul Schulze
Written by: James Vanderbilt, based on a book by Robert Graysmith
Directed by: David Fincher
MPAA Rating: R for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images
Running Time: 158
Date: 03/02/2007

Zodiac (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Sign of the Times

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David Fincher's sixth feature film is also his most distinctly un-Fincher-like work. In one very brief montage, we see newsprint, numbers and figures floating over the screen, but that's about it. Not even the opening titles are very flashy. (Conversely, the tense, jarring title sequences for Se7en and Panic Room haunt me to this day.) Instead the film gets down to business, just like its subject matter.

It concerns the real-life case of the San Francisco serial killer known only as Zodiac, who was at large for well over a decade, beginning in 1969. The story flips back and forth between a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and a political cartoonist for the same paper, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a couple of local detectives assigned to the case, Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). Each pair does their own hunting for clues, such as decoding the killer's cryptic ciphers or checking for handwriting samples. Years later, Graysmith gets the idea to round up all the facts in one place and publish a book about the case. (It appeared in 1986.)

But Zodiac isn't a horror film or a suspense thriller; it belongs to that rare and bizarre genre item, the police procedural, which merely traces one seemingly banal clue to the next, in the hope that something may pay off (it often doesn't). In that, Fincher's film is a cousin to Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men (1976) and Oliver Stone's JFK (1991). These films are often fascinating to those with patience, and Zodiac is no exception. But because it lacks Fincher's usual glitz, it also has the feel of being sluggish, as if the movie weren't totally obsessed with its subject (in this case, anything less than total obsession is unacceptable).

Regardless, Fincher has gone out of his way to create an expert environment, peopled with amazing guest stars like celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) and with geographically and chronologically correct San Francisco landmarks. We witness the Transamerica Pyramid being built, and characters go to see Don Siegel's 1971 Dirty Harry (the original Zodiac movie) at the now-defunct North Point Theater. The performances by the large and impressive cast -- especially Ruffalo's -- are superb, even if Gyllenhaal plays up his squeaky-clean Boy Scout character a bit much. Poor Chloe Sevigny, cast as Graysmith's wife, gets stuck doing the same thing that Sissy Spacek did in JFK, worrying and waiting and complaining about her husband's fanatical dedication to his work.

There's a lot to like about Zodiac, but the most interesting thing about the film may also be its undoing. The film is careful to point out just how small and ineffectual the Zodiac was as a killing machine. His victims added up to the tiniest fraction of homicides committed during his reigning years. In this, it asks the question: what fascinates us about this small-timer? But in taking a step back and asking that question, it also nullifies the question. It has challenged the very obsessive nature that might result in an attraction to the Zodiac killer. With his best film, Fight Club (1999), Fincher delved headfirst into the maelstrom and chaos, swirling and celebrating with its every move. Zodiac is more of a passing fancy, and that's just not enough to make it as the subject of a nearly three-hour film. Zodiac
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