Watching David Fincher’s Zodiac is an experience akin to reading a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, one of those which tell you everything but get you nowhere. At the end, you’re left with a mass of information but no conclusions and you spend the weeks afterwards going over it in your mind trying to pin it down. It’s a tribute to the power of Fincher’s film that the comparison doesn’t seem remotely impudent. We watch the best part of two decades pass by as murders, suspects, clues and endless questions flash before us and, before we know it, 157 minutes is up and we still don’t really know anything for certain. “Nobody has any more Zodiac crap than you!” spits the hero’s girlfriend sarcastically and she could easily be talking about the film – indeed, it’s a judgement which the film’s detractors have echoed. But all that Zodiac crap strikes me as fascinating; perhaps most of all because there is no answer to round it all up at the end.
Indeed, all that Zodiac crap is one of the most distinguished elements of the film. Fincher has deliberately placed us right in the middle of the investigation, in the position of the three central characters – cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhall), journalist Paul Avery (Downey Jr) and cop Dave Toschi (Ruffalo). The more they know, the less they know and every time they try to pin something down, it manages to wriggle away. The film throws information at us without mercy, making no concessions to audiences who are unwilling to concentrate and deliberately harking back to some eminent forebears. The key influences would seem to be Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City, Oliver Stone’s JFK or Nixon and Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men. The shadow of the latter falls heavily on the newsroom scenes which are shot from many of the same low angles. Where Fincher falls short of his models is in allowing a domestic subplot – involving Graysmith and his incredibly dull girlfriend – to get in the way, much in the manner of Sissy Spacek in JFK. The characters aren’t sufficiently interesting on their own to withstand examination; as far as I’m concerned, their interest lies in how they connect with the case. But Fincher's manages to maintain our attention for a remarkably long time and the ending - with echoes of Bad Timing and The Sweet Hereafter - is insidiously memorable and blackly comic.
Despite a few longeurs, however, this is a brilliantly made, richly atmospheric film with stunning performances from a huge cast – Fincher’s expert marshalling of his enormous number of actors is unexpected – and notably from Mark Ruffalo as Dave Toschi, the San Francisco cop who was, famously, the role model for Steve McQueen’s Bullitt. Ruffalo exudes calm, cool rationality and is by far the most charismatic figure in the film, although Brian Cox gives him a run for his money in a few scenes as the slightly mad publicity seeker Melvin Belli. Fincher has packed his film with familiar faces, people who you haven’t seen for a while like John Getz and Candy Clark and actors such as Elias Koteas and Donal Logue who are always good. There’s not a single bad performance in the film and some of them – particularly John Carroll Lynch as the most likely Zodiac suspect – are alarmingly convincing. The score by David Shire adds an extra 1970s touch – it’s very reminiscent of The Conversation and All The President’s Men - and it’s nice to see the old Paramount logo at the start. The look of old movies is very well maintained – an interpolated scene from Dirty Harry is very well matched.
The Warner Region 2 disc of Zodiac has been much criticised for its poor picture quality. Paramount’s Region 1 release appears to be better although I haven’t seen the R2 myself. Colours throughout are gorgeous, fully realising the muted colour palate used by the cinematographer. The level of grain is just right and there’s loads of detail. However, the bad news is the distracting shimmering which afflicts some daytime sequences, particularly the panning shots across the city landscape. There’s even some edge-enhancement in places. I do have to say however that the compression artefacts reported on the R2 are not present here in any significant volume.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is, thankfully, devoid of problems. The film is very talky and consequently, dialogue dominates the track and it’s eminently clear and clean. The sound effects are involving and often unnerving and, while there’s little action from the sub-woofer, it’s an enveloping and effective experience. The use of pop music is particularly memorable – you’ll never again listen to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” without looking over your shoulder.
There are no extras on the disc, although we do get a brief trailer for the Zodiac: Director’s Cut which is coming next year. I hope to return to the film with that release.