Zodiac: a movie review

Procedural thrillers tend to have a few things in common: they have a well-defined stable of characters, they take place over a reasonably brief stretch of time, and they… y’know, resolve. If a procedural presents a whodunnit, the end will reveal who, in fact, dunnit, and usually why.

David Fincher’s Zodiac necessarily throws these rules out. The Zodiac case covered many, many years of active police inquiry — and so does the film, showing us fourteen years of investigation, both by the police detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) and by a journalist (Robert Downey, Jr.)

But the film really centers around Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall), a cartoonist who became engrossed by the coded messages that the Zodiac Killer’s sent in to San Francisco’s newspapers. Zodiac follows Graysmith through the years as he studies, decodes, and researches the messages, trying to tie them to any of the suspects — and there are plenty of suspects.

Zodiac is a sprawling endeavor, trying to make sense out of a tangled mass of evidence. “Sprawling” isn’t usually something I look for in a movie, but Fincher makes it work with one simple, demanding choice: every single role is written and cast thoughtfully, intelligently, carefully, with the sense that these people are real, not vehicles for moving the plot along.

This is also true of the very difficult scenes of the Zodiac attacks. In the most vivid and disturbing depiction, which takes place during a picnic, Fincher uses close-ups and POV shots to narrow our focus: the entire outdoor scene shrinks down to a frantic, tight few feet. He forces us to identify in the most heartbreaking way with the terror and tension of the victims.

The A.V. Club recently inducted David Fincher’s Zodiac into their New Cult Canon, and with good reason. It’s a modern classic, a resonant story of obsession and uncertainty circling endlessly around a series of senseless tragedies.

[This review was cross-posted to The Video RePort.]

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