Zodiac (2007) is one of the most detailed crime films I’ve ever seen. It was not quite the movie I expected from director David Fincher — whose previous films include Fight Club (1999) and Seven (1995) — but I was very happy with what I got. Rather than a showy thriller, Fincher has delivered a precise and meticulous police procedural that is every bit as interesting and compelling as any of his deeply psychological films.
Much has been written elsewhere about how the film purposely subverts many of the natural thriller moments. There are no really big scare scenes, the violence is front-loaded (and astonishingly plain, which in a way adds to its horror), and no final confrontation. The film has more in common with a police procedural from television than it does with most serial killer films. This is not another Silence of the Lambs (1991), for instance.
That is probably why it works so well. Deeply rooted in reality, the movie spans some 22 years as various people investigate the Zodiac serial killer who terrorized Northern California in the late ’60s and early ’70s (this is the story that served as the template for the original 1971 film Dirty Harry). Though the story seems like familiar movie territory, little else does. There is no clear-cut hero, we have a villain who remains a mystery, and the usual turning points that power most films are nowhere to be found.
It’s a long movie, at 2 hours and 40 minutes, one that takes its time to give the audience details. We see the first few crimes, and we follow police and reporters as they investigate them. As the trail grows cold and the killer himself seems to fade away, we see how obsession with solving the case leads investigators down strange paths — and the movie follows many false leads and breakthroughs. By the end of the film there is still no answer, no final piece to the jigsaw puzzle that lets everything fit together. The case remains unsolved in real life, and so too in the movie.
And if those things sound like flaws, they would be in a lesser movie. But Fincher, along with screenwriter James Vanderbilt (working from a book by Robert Graysmith, himself a character in the film), does an impressive job of keeping the whole complex mess seem somewhat clear. There is more detail in this movie than any human could really process in a single sitting, but through the morass of names and dates the screenplay is able to blaze a trail that seems more or less clear to us. And Fincher’s visual style, though largely buried within this movie, energizes the proceedings by always giving us something interesting to look at.
The performances are all good, though the characters are not the main focus of the film. Robert Downey Jr. is able to ham it up as a hard-drinking crime reporter, but most of the actors are playing roles that are not fleshed out. Again, this is not a flaw: too much time spent with the personal lives of these characters would be a distraction from the core of the film, which is the process.
Zodiac is a rare quality film released early in the year. It is a deeply satisfying film for those who are patient enough to follow it through to the end, and it will give you something to think about for days afterward.