The eagerly awaited return of David Fincher brings with it a heavy weight of expectation. Five years since the tense and voyeuristic Panic Room hit our screens, he presents us with a slow burning crime thriller with a high calibre cast that scores very highly in the performance and storytelling stakes. There is no action beyond a few short murder scenes, nor is there a huge twist just waiting to get out. Think the puzzling nature of Se7en without the hyped up concluding third or the compelling mystery surrounding Tyler Durden in Fight Club without the glossy style. In taking us back to the true story of a serial killer named the Zodiac in 1960s San Francisco, Fincher seems to be maturing as a filmmaker more concerned with connecting with his characters through life’s obsessions than pushing them towards a jarring pay-off.
Although Fincher took his time finding the right project after 2002’s Panic Room, Zodiac has the key element that has brought him success in the past – a dark heart to his story. The Zodiac killer struck and then sent letters to the police and press bragging about his murders, goading them with ciphers and clues to his identity. He publicly claimed more than 30 victims from 1960s into the 1970s, taunting authorities with threats to kill school children and drenching San Francisco with fear. Four men became so consumed by the case it took over their lives: the San Francisco Examiner’s cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) and crime reporter Paul Avery (Downey Jr.) along with homicide inspectors Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Edwards).
Their criss-crossing paths around the true identity of the Zodiac leaves them tantalisingly close to solving a case that gripped a nation. While Toschi and Armstrong bang their heads against brick walls trying to crack the clues, Avery seeks a scoop that will reveal the identity of the Zodiac. Meanwhile Graysmith looks on from the background feeding off any scraps they will throw at him until he suddenly finds himself on the verge of a major breakthrough. Each of their competing quests gives Fincher the chance to etch contrasting compulsive responses to the need to find the identity of the Zodiac. Like Brad Pitt in Se7en and Edward Norton in Fight Club they all crack, but here it is entirely believable and away from the attention-grabbing antics of his previous efforts.
With so many copycat crime thrillers at the cinema and on television using rouge cops and the sudden appearance of crucial evidence, Zodiac’s meticulous display of the real procedures of crime solving could wrongly be thought of as tiresome given the 157 minute running time: Perry Mason could easily solve three crimes in two-and-a-half hours. Yet by painstakingly focusing on the nitty gritty of whether statements or accusations will stand up in court, and the frequent set backs that can break even the toughest cop, Zodiac gets under your skin to the point you’ll be dying to know who the killer is. If you’ve read Robert Graysmith’s novel on which this is based you’ll already know it is the impact the search has on the lives of these men that causes the true drama. A fantastic, if gradual, re-emergence from Fincher.
A 25 minute featurette, “This is Zodiac”, with behind the scenes footage and interviews with David Fincher, Jake Gyllanhaal, Chloe Sevigny and author Robert Graysmith who wrote the book and was a consultant on the film. It also includes a trailer for the 2008 Zodiac Director’s Cut, an extended version of the movie due to be released sometime next year.
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