Droid defines the Decades Best Films – #5 Zodiac (2007)
Well here we are. Finally down to the Top 5 of the Best of 2000-2010. I’ve been taking my sweet ass time doing this, due to my dedication to watching complete shit like 70’s Arnies. I’ve also been putting this off because I keep shifting the order of movies two through five. One is set, but on any given day five could be two, four could be three and so on and so forth. So I’ve decided to just set the order in stone and state for the record that numbers two through five are terrific films. All worthy of the holy grail every film vies for; Four Changs. And I’ll leave it at that.
In San Francisco and neighbouring parts of Northern California during the late 1960’s and early 70’s, a serial killer who called himself Zodiac was murdering people and sending taunting letters to the San Francisco newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle. The police, led by David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) were baffled by the random nature of the killings and the lack of substantial evidence. The killer would include coded messages in his letters to the Chronicle, and crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr). Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who decoded one of the messages, became obsessed with the case, dedicating his life to gathering the evidence necessary to find out the killers true identity.
This film is fascinating. There is so much detail involved, and so many facts, dates, people and places thrown at you it’s truly amazing that it’s so easy to follow. When I first saw this, I wasn’t very aware of any of the details of the case. All I knew is that during the early 70’s there was a killer that sent letters to the media that called himself the Zodiac. Baring that in mind, I never once had any issue understanding who everyone was, and what all these details meant, which for a film with so many characters, and so much attention to detail is an impressive feat. One way the film has solved the issue of the multitude of characters is to cast distinctive character actors. By casting actors such as Elias Koteas, Philip Baker Hall, Brian Cox, Dermot Mulroney and John Carroll Lynch, distinctive actors that we are familiar with, we never have to check twice to remember who these people are. It helps keep us focused on the case, and allows us to get involved in the characters.
I’m not a particular fan of Jake Gyllenhaal (I don’t really dislike him either). He’s never really stood out as a terrific actor, or been particularly great in anything before this. The character of Robert Graysmith is an eager, wide eyed boy scout (“eagle scout, actually”) who gradually becomes so obsessed with the case that he allows his life to fall apart around him. Gyllehaal is perfectly cast. He has that innate wide eyed vulnerability that works for the character. It’s a great performance, and one I think is probably a bit underrated. Downey Jr is terrific in his scene stealing performance as alcoholic chain smoking reporter Paul Avery, and Mark Ruffalo is also good as Inspector David Toschi, the celebrity detective who influenced Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt.
I’ve since read the book written by Graysmith, and despite it being pretty circumstantial, it is still a compelling read. Adapted by James Vanderbilt, the film is a far more convincing presentation of the evidence. The case remained unsolved until it was officially closed a few years ago, and Vanderbilt deftly chose not to focus the story on the killer himself, but on the investigation. It focuses on the obsession of Graysmith and Toschi, and the effect it had on their lives. The way the evidence, so random and seemingly unconnected, ate at them. Their obsession was not so much to bring this killer to justice, but to solve the puzzle, to connect all the dots and to satisfy their own need for closure. Two of the best scenes in the film come at the end. When Graysmith presents Toschi with compelling evidence, Toschi’s reaction is of a man unburdoned. “Thankyou. Thankyou for breakfast.” Out of context it’s a meaningless line of dialogue. But in the film it’s a terrific moment. Directly following that scene is one where Graysmith simply looks upon the suspect, and the suspect understands why. The slight change in the look on Lynch’s face when he realises why Graysmith is looking at him is terrific acting. The entire Graysmith character is summed up perfectly when his wife (Chloë Sevigny) asks him why the case is so important to him.
"I need to know who he is. I need to stand there. I need to look him in the eye. And I need to know that it’s him."
This, for me, is director David Finchers best film. He’s made terrific films prior to this, but ‘Zodiac’ is his masterpiece (thus far). It’s a visually impeccable film. Everything about the period feels authentic. This is ‘All The Presidents Men’ for the 2000’s. He wisely places all the brutal murders at the beginning, and then focuses on the investigation. He lets the story unfold, and he keeps us engaged with elegant camera work and fascinating little touches like the way he conveys the passing of time. Just when we are beginning to tire a little of seeing title cards on the screen, he will show a time lapse shot of Transamerica building being built or a black screen with recognisable music from the period. They are timed perfectly and keep our attention focused and have us anticipating what will come next.
I only just realised this when watching it for the third time, because it’s not something that stands out, but the most important element of the film, the thing that keeps us engaged and doesn’t allow us to tire of the endless facts and detail, is that it is actually very funny. I was frequently laughing during the film, and this involved me with the characters, and with the story. If this film was deadly serious it would be like a University lecture that I would go to so I could grab a nap. The humour lightens the feeling of the film, which lets face it, is pretty depressing. A serial killer doesn’t get caught despite years of investigating. On paper that doesn’t sound like the most interesting film. But Vanderbilts terrific writing, and Fincher’s ability to find small touches of humour in fact heavy scenes is crucial to it’s success.
There are also quirky details that an ordinary film just won’t even think of. There’s a scene where Toschi and Armsrong are sitting at a diner counter. It’s a dialogue heavy scene, with facts, names and places being discussed. But Fincher has Toschi take half of Armstrongs BLT sandwich, and instead of just eating it, Toschi first removes the tomato and puts it on the plate in front of him. It means nothing in the grand scheme of the film, but I noticed it, and by merely noticing it I was paying more attention. It’s small details like that which helps us keep focused on the information coming at us.
I’ve said focus and detail a lot in this review, but that is what this film comes down to. Much like the case itself, the film rewards attention. The closer you can follow the ridiculous amount of information that is conveyed, the more you will enjoy and appreciate this film.
The list so far…