Netflix Movie Month: "Zodiac" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Can't Get Enough Netflix? Click Here for a Chance to Win an Entire Year Free!

Rating: R
Length: 157 minutes
Release Date: March 2, 2007
Directed by: David Fincher
Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery

The greatest strength of the film "Zodiac" also doubles as one of its main weaknesses. The plot draws heavy inspiration from one of the most infamous unsolved crimes in American history. The Zodiac killer may not have left behind a legacy as gory as other serial killers, but what makes the case so perversely interesting is not the actual crimes committed. Rather, it's the network of missed connections, cryptic clues, and occasional incompetence that helped the Zodiac killer walk free. While many crimes attract attention because of their shock value and the triumph of justice served at the end, "Zodiac" subverts this model.

For some viewers, the movie's charms outweigh its flaws. For others, David Fincher's rambling crime drama is too unsatisfying to be an enjoyable experience. Fincher is not the first director to realize the potential for a riveting film based on this true story. However, Fincher's adaptation is one of the more genuine explorations of the Zodiac case. The screenplay takes its cues from a nonfiction book by Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist who dedicated a large portion of his life to cracking the enigmatic case. Graysmith's obsession influences the movie, giving it an authentic feel that goes beyond Hollywood sleekness.

As the film opens, the setting is California. The time period is the chaotic cusp between the 1960s and 1970s. A month after a brutal murder on an isolated lover's lane, a San Francisco newspaper office receives a bizarre letter. The encrypted missive and accompanying message challenge the newspaper to publish the letter, giving readers a chance to break the code and possibly discover the killer's identity. If the paper doesn't comply, the murderer threatens to strike again.

The paper's nonchalant and irreverent crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), blows the letters off as the work of a lone crackpot seeking attention. Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a boyish introvert who's supposed to focus on his cartoons, takes an immediate interest in the code. As the city hovers between hysteria and incredulity, the mysterious killer attacks several more times. The body count may not be high, but the weird nature of the letters and the escalating threats put the Zodiac at the forefront of everyone's minds. Detective Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) becomes a grudging part of an investigation that drags on interminably, sapping the energy of everyone involved.

The encrypted codes maintain a cruel promise, suggesting that just a single unscrambled message stands between the Zodiac killer and justice. The case leads down a trail of bad luck, clues dangling just out of reach. The true meat of the movie occurs when everyone else has given up on the Zodiac. This is when Graysmith's stubborn desire to solve the case turns him into a vigilante sleuth, endangering everything he loves to track down a few promising clues. Although he watches the case destroy his colleagues, the meek cartoonist refuses to let the killer walk free. Not if he can help it.

Decades have passed since the Zodiac's last known victim. Many professional and amateur sleuths seem to believe the Zodiac killer has passed away, whether through death or the symbolic death of his serial killer persona. Even so, it's hard to ignore the voyeurism involved in watching "Zodiac." While the characters want to bring a murderer to justice, much of their motivation is also ego driven. Arguably more than any other serial killer, the Zodiac desires attention. He gains power through outsmarting the authorities. Creating a movie about an infamous figure who fed off attention puts viewers in the strange situation of becoming part of the Zodiac's ploy.

This kind of complex layering is exactly what makes "Zodiac" such an intriguing piece of cinema. By refusing to tie up loose ends or offer a sense of ironclad finality, Fincher leaves audience members with a lingering sense of unease and curiosity. Some of this quality is derived from the true facts of the Zodiac case. Much of it, though, comes from the strong performances by Downey, Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo. Their dynamic keeps the story fresh and interesting yet suitably ambiguous. Gyllenhaal imbues Graysmith with an understated charm, the perfect guide for a journey that features a lot of suspense and not quite enough payoff.

There are no easy answers here. The film features very few action scenes. Its cinematography presents a muted palette, a moody, vintage ambiance that matches the sleepy pacing. While "Zodiac" goes against the stereotypes of flashy, rapid-fire crime movies, it rewards the patient viewer with a compelling and well-crafted story. "Zodiac" is, in many ways, a movie about frustration, dogged perseverance, and intense attention to detail. By the end of the film, loyal viewers will have affection for Graysmith and a dozen unanswered but fascinating questions.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5