ZODIAC: Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign….

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Let’s face the facts my friends: David Fincher is one of the best filmmakers working today, and when he has a new movie out it’s an event. The former music video and commercial director was poised for the big time when he made his feature debut with 1992’s Alien 3. But massive studio interference and an incomplete screenplay led to a tumultuous production and resulted in a film that was derided upon its release and that even Fincher has a hard time talking about these days as the movie has been reappraised and appreciated by fans and critics alike.

For a time it seemed that Fincher’s promising film career had been cut short until 1995 when he directed the groundbreaking crime/horror classic Seven, a movie that defied low expectations to blow away audiences with its stark visuals, intelligent screenplay, quality performances, and the brilliant and haunting ending that Fincher and his star Brad Pitt both fought the studio over. Seven went on to become a surprise blockbuster and effectively launched Fincher’s once-stalled career. Ever since then the filmmaker has constantly impressed with his directorial efforts including The Game, Panic Room, and another modern classic with Brad Pitt, Fight Club. In the five years since the release of his last film Fincher decided to turn his attention to another serial killer tale, this one based on a true story: the story of one of the most famous unsolved murder cases in American history – Zodiac.

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On July 4, 1969 in a small California town a married woman and her young lover are attacked by a mysterious assailant with a silencer. The woman dies but the man barely survives. The killer, calling himself the Zodiac, begins sending letters with ciphers enclosed to several newspapers in San Francisco. One letter is sent to the Chronicle and interests the paper’s crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Robert is fascinated with codes and puzzles so he takes the cipher and begins the decode it. A local couple, also puzzle enthusiasts, manage to break the code- it contains another message from the Zodiac. Assigned to the case are police inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). Over the course of several years and many Zodiac letters the detectives, with some unwanted assistance from an increasingly unstable Avery, manage to come up with promising leads that ultimately go nowhere as Robert becomes more obsessed by the case. For a time their prime suspect is a man named Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), but a handwriting analysis and an unsuccessful search of his home exonerate him. The Zodiac case goes cold for about five years.

Robert has never been able to shake his growing obsession with the Zodiac. Believing that writing a book about the Zodiac may help to shed new light on the case Robert makes an attempt at convincing Avery, who has left the Chronicle and now writes for another paper, to take on the task. But the once-great reporter has fallen into a constant alcoholic stupor and isn’t too thrilled with the idea so Robert decides to go it alone despite the protests of his wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny). With some assistance from a reluctant Inspector Toschi Robert conducts his own investigation and manages to come up with some new information that the police failed to produce the first time around. His quest for the truth puts him in the public eye, resulting in a few creepy late-night phone calls consisting of heavy breathing. As Robert gets closer to the truth his obsession grows until only the discovery of the Zodiac’s true identity will put his mind, and his soul, at ease.

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It is indeed rare when a movie is so good it has me hooked from the first frames to the last but Zodiac is one of those rare flicks. It’s like a book that’s so good you can’t put it down once you start reading. When I heard Fincher was returning to the world of serial killers where he first found cinematic success I was kind of disappointed seeing as he had already covered that ground with Seven and I was hoping he would move on to different subject matter. Then again I made the mistake of assuming Fincher would shift into autopilot and make an unofficial sequel to Seven. Zodiac is by far my second favorite David Fincher film, the first being Fight Club naturally. Running more than two-and-a-half hours yet never feeling like it Zodiac is a master class in acting, writing, direction, editing, music, and production design. Fincher has crafted a truly immersive and compelling cinematic experience.

Fincher has been often attacked for valuing style over substance in his films. While that may be true in the case of Panic Room, which even Fincher freely admits was a experiment with new filmmaking techniques in the guise of a popcorn movie, every movie he’s made since Alien 3 has been composed equally of beautifully dark visuals and compelling story lines. Zodiac is Fincher’s American epic, a sprawling fact-based narrative centered around three main characters and many supporting characters with multiple locations and many speaking parts spanning twenty-two years from the unnerving first scene in 1969 to the haunting final moments in 1991.

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Credit must go to James Vanderbilt for his stellar writing job. The brilliance in Vanderbilt’s screenplay is in how he masterfully boils the Zodiac case down to its essentials while giving all the characters in the story, even the minor ones, room to develop personalities and evolve over the course of the movie. Plus he loads up his narrative with the facts that were crucial to the investigation without turning the story into an overlong Court TV special. Personally my favorite aspect of Vanderbilt’s script is how he shrewdly flips the focal characters in the two distinct halves of the story: the first half concentrates on the police investigation and the impact the Zodiac murders had on California and the rest of the nation with Toschi, Armstrong as the main characters and Avery and Graysmith as the supporting players; then in the second half Graysmith becomes the main character as he conducts his own investigation with Avery and the cops now in the supporting parts. This shift makes logical sense as the second half deals with how the Zodiac has seemingly disappeared and people no longer care but the obsessive.

In assembling his cast Fincher wisely chose to not cast stars but rather established actors to add believability to the story and give their characters life. Leading the cast is Jake Gyllenhaal as the obsessive cartoonist Robert Graysmith. Our sympathies are with Graysmith from the beginning as we are shown him being an all-around nice guy and a loving father. But as the story progresses he becomes increasingly obsessed with the Zodiac, and though it’s at times a bit difficult to still empathize with Graysmith it’s through Gyllenhaal’s astute performance we grow to know his character and ultimately understand why he would willingly sacrifice up his job and family in his relentless pursuit of the truth. To the young puzzle enthusiast figuring out the identity of the Zodiac is the ultimate challenge, and we are absorbed by Graysmith’s investigation throughout.

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Mark Ruffalo was wisely cast in the role of seasoned homicide detective Inspector Dave Toschi. Like Gyllenhaal Ruffalo’s lack of star presence and abundance of acting talent makes it easier for him to become the character the audience believes him to be . The real Toschi was the inspiration for famous movie cops like Frank Bullitt and Dirty Harry Callahan, but Ruffalo plays him like no cop we’ve ever seen- a real cop as dedicated to catching his quarry as he is making sure it’s done according to the rule of law. Sporting a unique hairstyle and a closet full of impeccable suits, Ruffalo certainly looks the part. He makes Toschi a dogged cop who still knows when to give up but finds himself somewhat energized by Graysmith’s obsessive inquiry. Ruffalo is absolutely brilliant as Toschi.

The third major lead is Robert Downey Jr. as San Francisco Chronicle crime journalist Paul Avery. Downey is typically excellent as the flamboyant reporter but it‘s often difficult for the actor to fully immerse in the role due to the fact he and Avery are similar in many ways. Like Avery Downey is gifted in his chosen profession but he tended to be self-destructive in his pursuit of good times and relief from the darkness he plunged himself into as part of his job. Unlike Avery though Downey turned away from his old life and pulled himself back onto his feet, and over the past several years the actor has been on the roll of his career. His performance in Zodiac ranks with those he gave in the films Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Good Night and Good Luck, and A Scanner Darkly. Downey seems to have finally put his own personal demons to rest, making his performance as Paul Avery a triumph on many levels.

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Surrounding the three principal leads is an outstanding supporting cast smartly put together by Fincher and his casting director Laray Mayfield that features some of my favorite character actors giving convincing and compelling performances. Some of the best include Anthony Edwards as Toschi’s equally determined partner Armstrong; Donal Logue and Elias Koteas as two small-town cops who crucially assist in the investigation when the Zodiac commits murders on their turf; Brian Cox as the legendary showboat attorney Melvin Belli, who was drawn into the case at the Zodiac‘s request; Dermot Mulroney as Toschi and Armstrong’s superior; John Carroll Lynch, incredibly creepy as the prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen; Chloe Sevigney as Graysmith’s worried wife Melanie; Phillip Baker Hall as the handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill; and Charles Fleischer (fucking Roger Rabbit) as another potential Zodiac suspect.

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) has rarely been employed as effectively and as conservatively as it is used in Zodiac. Until I watched the documentaries on the new DVD I had no idea how many visual effects shots were in the movie. I was duly impressed by the work of Digital Domain, the groundbreaking effects company originated by James Cameron. You will be amazed at how the effects are used sparingly to open up a location by adding buildings to a set to make it look like an authentic locale and giving the story the proper scope with sweeping shots that beautifully recreate the era covered in the film.

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Adding immeasurably to the look of Zodiac is cinematographer Harris Savides, a frequent collaborator of David Fincher’s whose work has previously appeared in The Game, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, and Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. Although Fincher’s films have often been distinguished by their beautiful and disturbing use of darkness, Zodiac may be his brightest film to date. Even though there plenty of night scenes and dark rooms that resemble vintage Fincher, the majority of the film takes place in broad daylight, police stations and newspaper offices lit by fluorescent light bulbs, and a sunlight-drenched California lake that provides the setting for a Zodiac murder. But the night scenes in this movie are without a doubt genuine works of art. I mean they look like the paintings of Edward Hopper, real “Nighthawks at the Diner” quality.

The look of the film can be easily attributed to the filmmakers’ use of digital film as opposed to using regular film, with the exception of the opening sequence. Savides’ work on Zodiac is stellar and will most definitely leave its impression on you by the time the credits roll, just like everything else in the movie. Other crucial members of the crew who deserve mention for their outstanding work on Zodiac are production designer Donald Graham Burt; film editor Angus Wall; art director Keith Cunningham; and costume designer Casey Storm.

The person whose work I was most anxious to see in Zodiac is veteran film composer and Oscar-winner David Shire. Shire has been working steadily in movie scoring since the 1970’s and his most memorable credits include the scores for All the President’s Men, Drive, He Said, The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three, The Conversation, and Norma Rae. For this film Shire composes another great musical score that harkens back to the jazzy and atmospheric work he’s done in the past while perfectly capturing the era depicted. Shire hasn’t worked in film much in the last two decades, but his wonderful score for Zodiac proves he’s still one of the industry’s unsung treasures.

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A compelling and near-flawless work of modern cinema Zodiac is one of my new favorites and one of the best films released in 2007, let alone the past decade. If you’re looking for a great intelligent thriller with fascinating characters and credible dialogue that doesn’t insult your intelligence yet offers no easy answers, you will love Zodiac. This movie is a goddamn masterpiece and I highly recommend it.

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