Time: 158 mins.
SYNOPSIS: A San Francisco cartoonist becomes an amateur detective obsessed with tracking down the Zodiac killer. His work impresses the dectectives assigned to the case, but despite damning information they don't ever get enough crucial evidence to convict the man they suspect.
BOTTOM LINE: Fincher seems to be attracted to fairly dark and twisted material, so it's no surprise he couldn't resist helming this film about one of the most brutal killers the residents of the Bay Area had the misfortune to encounter. While the crimes were brutal and unexpected, this is not a horror movie or even a thriller, but an intense, meticulously executed police drama about terrible crimes the San Francisco police were unable to solve. The murders are shown in all their bloody glory, their point to shock and frighten the audience, to make them feel the urgency of the detectives in their efforts to stop this supposedly random killer from striking again. Though this is a long film with more talking than action, Fincher sets a mood of doom and anxiety that permeates the entire experience, especially in the characters played by Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo. Both have their reasons for wanting to catch The Zodiac, allowing his presence to overtake their lives, creating an obsession with his madness that becomes hard for them to shake.
Fincher coaxes out of Gyllenhaal his best performance to date, as a nerdy cartoonist trying to prove he's a better, smarter man than he actually is. It was hard to believe him at first since he's so good-looking, but his inner geek wins out. Even when he gets the girl, he can't give up the Zodiac. It's his need to find meaning in his life – trying to solve the crimes gives him purpose and a sense of importance – that drives the film and gives it its' complex emotional core. Downey adds much needed levity and exuberance to the heavy proceedings as the alcoholic reporter who'll do anything to break the case, even fudge the facts, if it will make him more famous. He's so charming he's hard to hate, though his colleagues don't find him so. It's the sort of role, he could play in his sleep, but Paul Avery is more nuanced than he should be thanks to Downey's talent. I'm not always a fan of Sevigny's dour puss, but she makes the most of the usual, long-suffering girlfriend/wife role. At least she makes you remember her, which is something considering what she has to work with.
This film is not just about the murders, it's about what they meant to the people involved. It's a quiet, intelligent, gritty take on these infamous crimes I think many people aren't going to expect or like. The plot is long and involved, the characters not always likable and it doesn't have a happy or obvious ending. It's sort of a long road to nowhere – since the killer was never found – yet Fincher captures the essense of the obsession perfectly. The frustration, the terror and inevitably the acceptance that we're never going to get the answers to who and why. The style, story and pacing are seductive and this interpretation of those events made me want to find out even more about the case. If you're looking for endless action and pat answers this is definitely not a film you're going to enjoy. It's life at it's most tragic and mundane.