Review By: Mark Zimmer
Published: January 07, 2008
On occasion a criminal captures the imagination in a particularly emphatic way; Jack the Ripper did so both through extreme violence and a series of taunting letters to the police and press. The California serial killer who called himself The Zodiac followed in those footsteps, killing five confirmed victims in 1968 and 1969 (though claiming many more in his letters) and sending a lengthy correspondence, filled with puzzles and ciphers, vague threats and displaying an odd fondness for Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. Although never caught, his talent for branding and media manipulation have given him an importance in true crime lore that has few equals.
David Fincher’s film begins with several of the murders, though including only the ones that had surviving witnesses. While graphically depicted, they occur very quickly and it’s clear that Fincher’s interest lies not with Zodiac or the killings, but specifically with the effect that his conduct and especially his letters had upon three men. These include San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), who did the principal coverage on the case, and detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the lead investigator for the San Francisco police. Most importantly, it centers on Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist for the Chronicle who becomes completely obsessed with the case, and eventually would write the book that started a generation of armchair detectives on the case, referred to affectionately or contemptuously in equal measure as the Yellow Book.
The Yellow Book, while obviously influential in keeping the case in the mind of the public, has its own shortcomings due to Graysmith’s self-trained amateur police procedures and a penchant for exaggeration (some say fabrication) to make his favored suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) fit better than anyone else. For instance, a key factual point against Allen in the film is The Zodiac making a telephone call declaring December 18 to be his birthday (also Allen’s birthday), though such a call is completely undocumented. Graysmith also leans heavily upon a painting party attended by Allen at the home of one of the victims, which apparently never even happened. Fincher’s film has come under some serious criticism in Zodiac circles such as www.zodiackiller.com for following the Yellow Book’s interpretation of the facts. But Fincher is playing a complicated game here; it’s important to note that he’s not treating Graysmith as having the answer. Indeed, as portrayed by Gyllenhaal he’s something of a nut, seeing suspects on every side and leaping to conclusions about suspects; in the space of about ten minutes of running time he’s absolutely convinced that three different men are The Zodiac. It’s as if Fincher is quite aware that Graysmith isn’t entirely reliable, but that he’s interested in the obsessional aspect of the man, and thus feels free to use Graysmith’s conclusions without necessarily validating them. That’s underlined by the fact Fincher uses several different actors to portray The Zodiac as he commits his crimes, none of them being Lynch.
Gyllenhaal does a superb job of conveying Graysmith’s descent into near-madness and paranoia as he becomes more and more fascinated by what seems to him as if it is a solvable puzzle. He begins as an Eagle Scout interested in bringing a killer justice and slowly allows his life to totally unravel as he continues wallowing in his fascinations. At the same time, he uses the obsession toward constructive ends, culminating in the Yellow Book, unlike Paul Avery, who finds himself unable to cope with his unwilling interest in the case and The Zodiac’s sly attentions, descending into drugs and leaving San Francisco altogether. Ruffalo’s portrayal of Toschi is quite solid, conveying frustration both at his inability to capture The Zodiac and at Graysmith’s amateur antics, while also allowing Graysmith to refuel his own interest and to allow him to pursue issues that are stymied by interjurisdictional problems. The supporting cast is outstanding as well, with Brian Cox doing a superb job as flamboyant media hound attorney Melvin Belli, and Lynch in brief scenes as Allen. Particularly memorable is Chloe Sevigny as Melanie, Graysmith’s long-suffering girlfriend and later wife, who cannot get through to him about what his obsession is doing to their marriage. Her plight is poignant, but she also refuses to suffer in silence.
Even though very little happens after the murders have concluded less than half an hour in, Fincher keeps the suspense level high through editing that moves the various threads along. Several set pieces are brilliantly executed, most notably the attack on Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard at Lake Berryessa, where The Zodiac adopted the terrifying persona of an executioner complete with bizarre black hood, and Graysmith’s visit to Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), who at first appears to offer information and then quickly becomes a suspect himself. This version of the film offers the director’s cut with an additional seven minutes of footage, though nothing of earth-shaking relevance.
Unlike most crime movies, there cannot be a satisfying denouement to this picture where the criminal is brought to justice. The question remains open to a far greater extent than the film suggests, since Allen did not match on DNA or fingerprints, and persons who spoke to The Zodiac said his voice did not match. On the other hand, one of the victims, Michael Mageau, identified Allen as the man who shot him. As stories change, memories fade, witnesses die and evidence vanishes, the crime will in all likelihood remain unsolved, even though it continues to fascinate and obsess armchair detectives from retired police and government cryptologists to Britney Spears.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) director David Fincher 2) Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., producer Brad Fischer, James Vanderbilt, crime author James Ellroy
1. Previsualisation comparisons
Extras Review: The package is an eye-catching reproduction of a Zodiac envelope, a clever piece of design that immediately differentiates it from the rest of the discs on the shelf while also resonating with the faux brown-paper packaging of Fincher’s Fight Club. The first of two discs is devoted entirely to the movie, with a pair of commentaries. Fincher’s is very solid, with little dead time and offering many insights into what he was intending to do. He does, however, reference period studio logos, which aren’t on the print used here. He makes it clear this is a very personal film, with his own childhood memories of The Zodiac and various other matters intruding into the picture though not on an obvious level. The second commentary is a chatty one that covers a lot of the same ground but is nevertheless an entertaining listen.
The second disc features four substantial documentaries, three previsualization sequences of the killings, and the trailer, all of them pleasantly presented in HD. All of the extras also include English, French and Spanish subtitles, which is a nice touch. The first of the four documentaries, all produced by David Prior (who makes a career of documenting Fincher), is Zodiac Deciphered (54m:12s), a fairly standard “Making of.” However, it also incorporates a goodly amount of behind-the-scenes material that gives a fascinating glimpse into Fincher’s perfectionist ways that remind one of Kubrick and his penchant for endless takes. Visual Effects of Zodiac (15m:18s) offers a look at the surprising amount of digital effects that were used to generate late-1960s San Francisco and other sites that have changed beyond recognition.
This is the Zodiac Speaking (1h:42m:10s) is one of the most fascinating extras ever offered on a DVD. Going directly to primary sources, Prior looks at the Zodiac crimes by interviewing the police involved, and the two surviving victims, Mike Mageau and Bryan Hartnell, while also looking at the physical evidence, and mostly disregarding the handwriting, the letters and ciphers that tend to get most of the attention. This does include crime scene photos that sensitive viewers may want to avoid. But to actually hear Hartnell talk about the attack, and see him on the shore of Lake Berryessa laying out how things happened, is amazing. Mageau, on the other hand, has clearly suffered badly in the interim and his story changes even while the camera is on him, making him a highly unreliable witness, though certainly a poignant one (and in the process casting substantial doubt on his ID of Allen). The stories often conflict in the details, making it clear that the real truth may never be known on many aspects of the story, such as whether The Zodiac was actually stopped by police after killing cabdriver Paul Stine.
The final documentary is Prime Suspect (42m:33s), devoted to Allen himself, or more specifically, Allen’s most notable accusers. In particular, Don Cheney, who disturbingly resembles the composites of The Zodiac, dubiously makes his story better and better over the years. This documentary does at least make it clear that while Allen was undeniably a weirdo who enjoyed being a suspect, and he was implicated by a huge amount of circumstantial evidence, there was in fact no physical evidence that connected him with The Zodiac’s crimes. It’s a superb collection of material that will both satisfy followers of the case and likely create new ones.
Extras Grade: A+
There’s a good reason why the True Crime section of bookstores continues to expand: the all-too-human fascination with such subject matter. Superb lead and supporting performances beautifully drive this drama of obsession with crime, and the extra materials are outstanding.