Movies are occasionally good simply because they aren’t bad. They look pretty good, the acting is skillful, the plot is mostly interesting, and everyone involved is a professional working in their accomplished medium. David Fincher’s Zodiac has a lot of positives going for it, but they don’t pull together as a very impressive whole.
The Zodiac was a self-named serial killer who murdered at least seven people (and possibly others) in Northern California in the late 1960s. Fincher’s movie, based on a book by San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (portrayed in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal,) is almost a double procedural. There is the hunt for the killer by various cops (including Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, and Donal Logue) and reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) while Zodiac is still operating and a subsequent investigation by Graysmith after the killings stop. Both investigations circle around Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch, best known as Frances McDormand’s husband in Fargo,) a child molester who is the obvious suspect in every way except that he doesn’t match any of the physical evidence.
Fincher doesn’t infuse the movie with the visual tricks that fans of Se7en, Fight Club, and Panic Room might expect. Instead everything is played straight with the story, acting, and few moments of suspense intended to carry the day. The scenes where Zodiac meets up with his victims (reportedly taken straight from survivor statements) are chilling to watch and turn up the suspense ratchet, but the long wait in between, mostly discussions between the various combinations of cops and reporters, dilutes their impact.
The real problem with the movie is the inability to focus on one character to pull you through the entire narrative. Downey plays his usual boozy/drug addled character and injects life into the first 45 minutes but then basically disappears for the rest of the film. Ruffalo and Edwards are tremendous as partners with an almost marriage-like relationship, but Edwards drops out and Ruffalo is downgraded to a secondary character in the last third. Lynch, primarily known for lighter roles, is great in his ten minutes of screen time, but doesn’t have much to do. I kept hoping that someone would step up and say “this is my god-damn movie” but it was more like a relay race, with too many handoffs.
Gyllenhaal, the supposed lead, spends the first half of the movie almost as an extra. He mumbles and adds nothing when discussing the murders. Then, almost from nowhere, he becomes completely obsessed with the case after almost everyone else has dropped it from lack of progress or activity. He ignores his wife (Chloe Sevigny) and kids and digs deep into the case files across several jurisdictions, coming up with connections that were originally missed. Gyllenhaal gives a great obsessed-guy performance in the second half but his motivation is very unclear. If it weren’t a true story you’d think he just did it to make the movie more interesting. Thanks to his performance, it almost works.
The period detail covering 1968 to the late 1970s is something that was clearly obsessed over by Fincher. Every detail looks spot on and goes along with the great look of the film. However, it begins to come across as one of those mystery reenactment documentaries they show on A&E. Lots of details and facts about the case but not a lot of excitement or suspense being generated. At least not enough to compensate for the butt-numbing 157 minute running time.
It’s hard to criticize Zodiac for anything other than being too long. A tighter more focused film would probably have had more impact. But if you know absolutely nothing about the case when you start the film (like myself), it does give a more entertaining overview than you’d get reading it in a book or watching a dry documentary. Just don’t expect too much and this might slip by as an interesting recent history lesson.
It takes a lot of guts for the movie studio, director, or whoever made the decision on this DVD to announce to fans within the DVD itself that they got totally screwed. There are no extras on this disc. No commentaries, no documentaries, no photo galleries, nothing. This is a movie that cries out for the actual information that informed what comes across as a very realistic portrayal of events. That’s bad enough, but at least it’s clear on the box what you are getting, or not getting to be more accurate.
The real kick in the nuts is when you look at the “previews” section, and the first one to show up is a “directors cut” of Zodiac, with previously deleted scenes added in by David Fincher. If there is one thing that this movie doesn’t need it’s a longer running time. But then the hits just keep on coming. The movie will have several commentaries by all the key contributors. There will be behind-the-scenes features about filming. There will be information about the actual case. And on and on.
Releasing regular and special edition of a movie is one thing. Typically even the regular edition gets something in the line of extras. But anyone who purchased this and sees that preview is going to be pissed they spent money rather than waiting for the next version to arrive in 2008. If anyone is a big fan of the movie, it would probably pay to just rent this version and hold onto your buying dollars until the next edition is released.
Technically the disc looks very good. Although at times some of the dialogue (especially Downey’s) is hard to hear. It’s a really nicely shot film and that comes across on this DVD. However, the complete lack of extras makes it a poor buy overall and it will be better to wait.