The 4th of July, 1969: a young couple are attacked and shot multiple times by an assailant at a lover's lane in Vallejo. The girl, Darlene (Ciara Hughes), is killed, but the boy, Mike (Lee Norris), survives. A month later, the killer, identifying himself as the "Zodiac", sends a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle and falls into the hands of reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). The case sparks the interest of newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a keen puzzle solver who succeeds in cracking the code used by the Zodiac. As more and more victims begin to pile up, and the Northern California area is engulfed in a flood of panic and suspicion, the case increasingly comes to occupy Graysmith's every waking thought, to the extent that he can focus on nothing other than solving the mystery of the Zodiac's identity.
I'll be the first to defend David Fincher's Panic Room. It get a lot of stick from the critics, a B-movie made in an age when there is an expectation that every film must be an A-picture. It's hard to deny, though, that it was Fincher's least personal project to date, technically brilliant but, by the director's own admission, a project that he took on primarily for the experience of putting together a fast, unpretentious popcorn movie without a deeper meaning. However, given that it had the name of the director of Se7en and Fight Club attached to it, it's not surprising that many were disappointed by seemingly inconsequential it was.
Zodiac, therefore, Fincher's first feature length project in five years, is likely to appeal considerably more to those who found Panic Room ultimately empty. It finds Fincher in deceptively similar territory to where he was twelve years ago with Se7en - the serial killer thriller, a well-mined subgenre to which he contributed what is arguably one of the most significant entries of the decade. With such an impressive pedigree, expectations were understandably high, mine included. The good news is that it has certainly been worth the wait. A spiritual follow-up of sorts to Se7en, it matches and, in some cases, exceeds its predecessor.
The Zodiac of the film's title refers to a serial killer who, between the years of 1968 and 1969, terrorised the Northern California area by committing a series of brutal and seemingly unmotivated murders, taunting the police via a series of highly publicised letters and telephone calls. On paper at least, the Zodiac killings might not seem like ideal movie material: the killer's victims were chosen seemingly at random, removing the "pattern" element that is so often vital to the plot of a serial killer film (where would Se7en, for instance, be without its murders patterned after the Seven Deadly Sins?), and in fact the Zodiac was never actually caught, with no conclusive ever produced against the police's only major suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch). (In fact, whether there was a single Zodiac killer or several continues to be debated.) It starts to make a lot more sense, however, once you realise the film isn't so much about apprehending the Zodiac, or indeed even who the Zodiac actually is, but about the effect the case has on those involved, chiefly Graysmith and Toschi, and, to a lesser extent, Avery.
James Vanderbilt's sceenplay is based on the book of the same name, an account of the Zodiac case penned by Graysmith himself. As a result, the film ends up being portrayed primarily from the point of view of Graysmith, portrayed here by Jake Gyllenhaal, who gives the cartoonist turned amateur sleuth a likeable bumbling quality that gradually gives way to a steely determination and obsessive resolve to solve the case. Graysmith is inexperienced and in way over his head, and Gyllenhaal ably conveys his growing obsession. The character is often the butt of his colleagues' jokes, but the script never portrays him as a fool or stoops to laughing at his expense. The rest of the cast are equally impressive, in particular Mark Ruffalo, who literally loses himself in the role of the flamboyant Inspector Toschi.
It's Fincher's film through and through, though, and the period in which it takes place - primarily the late 60s but also flashing forward to the 80s and 90s during the final act - is reproduced with such authenticity and attention to detail that it effectively becomes a character in its own right. Fincher shot the film digitally using Thomson VIPER FilmStream cameras, unlike his previous films, all of which (barring Alien 3) were shot in the Super35 process, and, although he still goes in for his trademark lengthy takes, low angles and muted lighting conditions, it has a very different look to his previous films. A lot of this can be attributed to the desire to accurately recreate the look of a bygone era: Fincher grew up in the Bay area at the time of the Zodiac killings, and this more than likely influenced his desire to accurately portray the period, and his refusal to go down the usual serial killer movie route of providing a gory kill every fifteen minutes and wrapping everything up in a neat package. He has too much respect for the material to engage in any cheap tricks here.
If the film has a failing, it's in its length. At 158 minutes, this is the director's longest film by a considerable margin, and, while it would be unfair to say that it ever becomes boring, it does at times feel slightly less than economical in its pacing, occasionally becoming sidetracked by the drudgery of police procedure and neglecting the impact that this is having on its characters. This is particularly apparent in the case of Chloë Sevigny, in the role of Graysmith's wife Melanie, who is severely underused and whose presence is neither here nor there. This would ultimately only be nitpicking, however: Zodiac is a top-notch film, one of the best of 2007, and potentially Fincher's best work to date.
Zodiac is presented anamorphically in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and the results can only be described as weird. The transfer has a look that I can't say I've ever seen before: detail levels are above average, while just about every single shot is marred by a large amount of frozen mosquito noise around complex areas. It's difficult to tell whether this is grain frozen as a result of noise reduction, or compression artefacts resulting from an inadequate bit rate, but it's incredibly distracting either way, and it gives the entire film a very strange look which was certainly not intentional. Given the all-digital nature of the production, it should have yielded a grain-free look, and yet the tell-tale signs of aggressive noise reduction are visible in just about every scene, particularly those shot in low lighting conditions. It's a rather unsatisfying presentation and one that only serves to make me salivate more for next year's release of the director's cut on HD DVD.
The audio is served up in English and Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, both with a bit rate of 384 Kbps. It generally sounds good, although the dialogue does sound a little thin, perhaps as a result of the lower than ideal bit rate. The audio design, by Fincher regular Ren Klyce, is a bit more subtle and subdued than in the likes of Se7en and Panic Room, but if you listen carefully, the rear channels are being used, primarily to augment the score and ambient noise, resulting in a rich and evocative soundscape, albeit one that feels slightly constrained.
An English audio descriptive track, and subtitles in a multitude of languages, are also provided.
This Region 2 release of Zodiac comes with a single featurette - an improvement, it must be said, on the completely bare-bones Region 1 DVD, but not by much. This is Zodiac is a pretty bog-standard making-of piece, running for 27 minutes and featuring comments from Fincher, Gyllenaal, Ruffalo, Downey Jr. and various others. It does go into a reasonable amount of detail and lacks the "fluff" factor that mars most EPK pieces, but it could have been so much more. The most interesting comments come from the real-life Robert Graysmith and David Toschi, who attest to the film's accurate portrayal of the period and events. This featurette is presented in non-anamorphic 1.78:1, with some of the content windowboxed to 1.33:1.
Bonus trailers are also included for 300 and Blood Diamond, and, as something of a slap in the face, the upcoming director's cut of Zodiac, which promises an array of bonus materials.
This release of Zodiac has "stopgap" written all over it. If you enjoyed the film and can't wait a few more months for the director's cut, then this release may be for you, but those with more patience are advised to pass on this disappointingly empty and visually compromised edition, particularly with the director's cut being slated for release on HD DVD.
9 out of 10
5 out of 10
8 out of 10
2 out of 10