Perhaps no string of serial killings remains as baffling as that of the "Zodiac" not only for the fact that the case has been left unsolved for decades, and still open in some jurisdictions, but also because the few tantalizing clues that promise to unmask the taunting murderer (a fingerprint, boot-prints, handwriting analysis) have amounted to little more than circumstantial blind-alleys over the years, never linked to a primary suspect. Since the initial Zodiac killings in the late '60, the Zodiac himself has been elevated to something between urban legend and cultural myth, referenced or invoked in films, television shows, and popular music, making David Fincher's Zodiac (2007) a valuable cinematic account of the original investigation. Drawn from Robert Graysmith's 1986 book, the film begins with two of the Zodiac's undisputed murders, the shooting of a teenage couple in a northern California golf course parking lot on the Fourth of July, 1969. Soon after, letters claiming to come from the shooter arrive at three separate San Francisco newspapers, each with specific information linking the author to the crime, and each with a portion of a cipher. The three papers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, print the letters and the cipher, which is solved by a local history teacher and his wife. The writer, self-identified as "Zodiac," also claims to have killed another couple in December of 1968, but it's only after a brutal stabbing attack on a third couple, and then the shooting death of a San Francisco cab-driver, that the city succumbs to a curfew and mild hysteria. Reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) heads up the investigation at the Chronicle, aided in part by cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has a passing interest in codebreaking. Meanwhile, SFPD inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) lead a complex police investigation that involves clues ranging from obscure military boots to untraceable fingerprints. After the Zodiac threatens to blow up a school bus full of children, the police find their tip-line overwhelmed with calls, while the lack of interagency support between San Francisco and the outlying counties creates a bureaucratic nightmare. Even publicity-seeking defense attorney Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) is drawn in to the case when the Zodiac requests to speak with him on a live television show, and later when the killer calls his home and sends him a letter. But it's only after Avery develops the theory that the Zodiac is now taking credit for crimes he hasn't committed that he receives a direct threat from the killer. Expanding his own investigation to Riverside, Calif., Avery also claims to have uncovered the "first" Zodiac killing, dating back to 1966. Such doesn't put him in the good graces of Inspector Toschi, who is pursuing a solid lead regarding one Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), a pedophile who seems to fit every circumstantial element of the Zodiac profile.
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Zodiac marks David Fincher's first film since 2002's Panic Room during his five-year hiatus he was attached to projects as varied as M:I3 and Lords of Dogtown, but Zodiac seems to segue well into his filmography, which is comparatively short, considering his well-deserved reputation. Like Se7en and Fight Club, Zodiac (Fincher's sixth feature production) is a dark, occasionally brutal film, and perhaps with a few personal touches (Fincher grew up in Marin County, Calif. around the time of the Zodiac hysteria). As such, it's effective as a witnessed narrative as much as a straight policier as introverted cartoonist Robert Graysmith, Jake Gyllenhaal is the Nick Carraway of the piece, one who is happy to observe events as much as possible, contributing at times, until he finds himself inescapably drawn into the investigation. Gyllenhaal anchors a cast that's uniformly excellent, with Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards playing the lead investigators with Woodward & Bernstien temperaments, Philip Baker Hall as a handwriting expert, and Brian Cox as Melvin Belli. However, Robert Downey Jr. gets the plumb part of Paul Avery or perhaps turns it into the film's most memorable character by virtue of the fact that Downey is both an actor and a movie star, able to merge his own hyperactive, brainwave-afflicted persona with the character as written on the page. Clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours, Zodiac verges on epic length, covering more than 20 years of narrative, but Fincher's direction manages the events well, including smart transitions (one involving the construction of the Transamerica Tower) and odd bits of humor (such as when every journalist in San Francisco takes to wearing "I'm Not Paul Avery" buttons after Zodiac's threat, Avery included). We're also capably reminded that Zodiac may be a movie, but it's not as fictionalized as the Zodiac persona would become, thanks to a quick excerpt from Dirty Harry (1971) a good film, but one that also exploited public fear. Zodiac purports to be the true events, right down to an examination of the best suspect the case ever had, but never could pin down. But it's also a story about obsession itself the killer's, to be certain, but also those close to the case who could never let it go after it went cold, and the personal costs of living with a crime that's left unsolved.
Paramount's DVD release of Zodiac offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. This single-disc edition is bare-bones, but Paramount reportedly is preparing a two-disc Special Edition. Keep-case.