March 16, 2007

Zodiac (03/16/07)

Lettergrade: A-

This flick covers the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, when the mysterious Zodiac killer terrorized the state of California by committing occasional, seemingly random murders, and more frequently by sending bizarre, coded messages to the San Francisco Chronicle with the demand that they be printed lest more murders follow.

I wasn't excited to see this movie, but we saw it the other night and I really thought it was quite well made. Despite the fact that the picture gets off to a somewhat slow and awkward start, what is ultimately delivered is a pretty damn good thriller with several outstanding scenes.

In ways, the picture feels more like parts of a mini-series that are being played back-to-back in the way it is set up. I suppose a story like this - that takes place over a long period of time and involves many characters and suspects - somewhat has to be done that way, but it means that some elements don't make immediate sense early on.

One of the initial decisions that seems most awkward, for example, is that the film shuttles back and forth between two sets of main characters: Two reporters at the Chronicle (Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.) and the two Homicide cops assigned to the Zodiac case (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards). Gyllenhaal plays up-and-coming staff cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who in real-life went on to write the book on which this film is based. Downey Jr. is an alcoholic, coke-sniffing, self-destructive narcissist. Fortunately, his character in the movie is too, so he probably didn't have to do much research before they started shooting.

Early in the movie in particular, a puzzling amount time is spent with Gyllenhaal where he's not doing much more than observing the letters come in at the Chronicle. The main action is left instead to Ruffalo and Edwards, who are there at the crime scenes and take us through the procedural side of the investigation. The two groups ultimately _do_ intersect in meaningful ways, but there are big sections of the movie where I had to wonder why we were spending so much time with one group instead of the other with no real pay-off in sight. All four of these leads sink deep into obsession in very different ways as the years continue with no conclusive answers.

There are also scenes, of course, which depict the Zodiac killings as they may have happened. Director David Fincher wisely stages the killings based on the vague descriptions that witnesses provided, but never quite reveals the Zodiac's face or gives a consistent impression of who he might have been. The silhouetted images and obscured views of a stocky, bespectacled man made a convincing argument to me that the Zodiac killer was, in fact, Drew Carrey. Laura's guess was that it was Penn Jilette. As it turns out, we were both wrong: The end credits reveal that he is played by several different actors throughout the flick.

The movie, shot on HD with the stunning new Viper cameras, is made in a gritty 70s style that instantly evokes the feeling of films of that era including All The President's Men and Dirty Harry (which itself was highly reflective the Zodiac killings which were in mid-stream at the time) among others. The picture is also somewhat evocative of J.F.K. in some ways. Many of the scenes succeed at being remarkably creepy and effective, despite the fact that it's really just people talking in rooms.

Among the complaints I've been hearing are that the movie is way too long and somewhat inconclusive. Those are definitely valid things to bitch about. Much like the real investigation that took place, many dead-end leads are introduced, pursued, and eventually abandoned when found not to be fruitful. They could have made a tighter, more cleanly told picture, sure... If I had anything to do with it, I probably would have argued to take out some of the sub plots that never go anywhere. There's something to be said for all the detours and side-streets that the movie embarks upon, though. Although there isn't always much of a pay-off, the abundance of detail and possibilities that exist here somehow got me just as wrapped up in the mystery as Gyllenhaal (and most of California) is in the film's second half. That's a rare and amazing thing that cinema can do, meaning that if I have to push through a nearly three hour behemoth to get there, I'm pretty much cool with that.

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