As the credits began to roll up the screen and I joined the queue to exit the cinema, I heard one member of the audience mutter to the girlfriend he had in tow: "I love David Fichtner [sic]. His films are always so stylish and you can definitely tell Zodiac was directed by the guy who did Se7en and Fight Club."
If Se7en and Fight Club placed style above substance, presenting two tightly-constructed stories with invasive cinematic flair, Zodiac is their antithesis. A character study at heart, and one which shows that the search for an answer can be as addictive as the answer itself, this adaptation of Robert Graysmith's sprawling book can be viewed as a very worthy addition to Fincher's filmography - but one that is entirely different to what has come before.
After a five-year absence from our cinema screens, Fincher has invested a lot of production time and money into filming an ongoing story which has, by definition, no resolution. The Zodiac Killer - a serial murderer that cultivated fear and media frenzy purely because someone was "out there" preying on young couples (the exact number of victims is unknown; the exact number of killer(s) and the precise nature of the Zodiac is still disputed even today). However, a more intriguing side of the story - aside from the usual serial killer trappings and armchair criminology which, whilst nonetheless entertaining, accompany most films of this ilk - is the process by which the investigators began to tackle this huge social and criminal problem. Leading the charge was Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle whose obsession with ciphers and puzzle-solving leads to him being drawn into a sprawling investigation which transcends county lines, separate police investigations, a myriad of conflicting evidence, a killer or killers who thrive in the media limelight...and the cold realisation that this killer may now be coming after Graysmith.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the "first-class Eagle Scout" with the youthful eagerness that possessed the real man. He is, ironically, relatively naive and certainly uncorrupted by the office politics at the Chronicle - the opposite of veteran reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr. on typically good form) who drinks himself into a stupor at the sheer irreverence of it all. Meanwhile Graysmith's wife, played by the underused Chloe Sevigny, tries to fathom why her previously mild-mannered and family-orientated husband is being so consumed by a case that is steeped in violence and misogyny.
Zodiac can be best described as an "old school" drama with rewarding elements of police procedure and moments of well executed suspense. Even the audience can indulge themselves in the minutiae of the case by reviewing the evidence throughout - so no prior knowledge of the film's events might be beneficial. For the first time in years Fincher is prepared to take a step back from the camera and let his characters breathe, and allow the story to find its own rhythm. Whilst the film is certainly a long one, it is well paced and satisfyingly edited. Details have undoubtedly been squeezed around the narrative in the name of poetic license, but apparently the significant details remain. It appears to be a very authoritative account of the sprawling case.
In one scene we witness the film's protagonists watching the character of Scorpio in the 1971 film Dirty Harry. It's an amusing moment of self-reference but it shows just how engrained the Zodiac Killer was in the conscious of western coast America during the 1970s. Whilst the case has faded from the newstands in today's world, the thought that the killer could well be in a crowd of people in 2007 still sends a small chill down the spine (or not, if you believe that a certain individual carried the crimes to his grave - amazingly so, considering how close the police came to arresting him). However, Zodiac is an excellent portrait of the social scene of '70s California and of the crimes themselves. Whilst Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, a thematic cousin to Fincher's film, focused more on the inhabitants of one neighbourhood that were caught up in the case of the Son of Sam shooter who terrorised New York during the summer of 1977, Zodiac's emphasis on the investigators themselves is nonetheless quite compelling.
Well written with wonderfully assured yet unshowy direction from Fincher (not to mention gorgeous period design and some of the most appealing cinematography I've seen from the digital Viper FilmStream cameras), it is one of the best produced films of the year so far. Recommended.
Zodiac is released on Region 1 DVD on July 24th.