341 – Zodiac

The true-crime thriller is one of the toughest kind of movies to make, because so many of the viewing audience will already be familiar with the storyline and can more easily anticipate what happens next. And the toughest true-crime thriller to make is probably one in which the culprit, in real life, was never caught. Then what do you do, hotshot? What do you do?

If you’re director David Fincher, you focus the plot not on the killings or on the resolution of the case but rather on the massive manhunt and intrepid detective work turned in by Inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) as well as the unofficial sleuthing by newspapermen Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Thus humanizing the forces attempting to bring the Zodiac to justice, Fincher is able to not only tell the tale straightforwardly but also scare the bejezus out of his audience, as is his wont. By identifying with the four leads, the audience has no choice but to hope against hope – knowing what it knows of the real story – that somehow good will perserere.

Of the four leads, the weak spot might be assumed to be the callow Gyllenhaal, but as it turns out he’s easily the strongest link in a tough chain of thespians. Graysmith, on whose book the movie is based, doggedly pursued the case as the paper’s cartoonist, much to the chagrin of those around him – his employers, his colleagues, and his wife (Chloe Sevigny) and kids. Graysmith MUST KNOW what happened. He wants to look Zodiac in the eye and somehow determine his culpability. Gyllenhaal – who should change his name to an easier to spell surname – is absolutely aces, which is a phrase I never thought I’d type regarding Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s never impressed me, looking to have exactly one emotion – moroseness – and I’ve always thought he was far too highly rated, But here, young Jake has won me over, just as Josh Hartnett did with Lucky Number Slevin and Kate Winslet did with any number of films after the awful Titanic. Gyllenhaal is superb, believable, and sincere in a commanding performance.

The others aren’t slouches, of course. Downey, Jr., aping Al Pacino from Serpico – except not playing a burned-out cop, just a burned-out reporter – is appreciatively scuzzy as Avery, a man never too far from a dangling cigarette or a murky drop of alcohol. Ruffalo and Edwards (where’s he been?) are a perfect match as two cops as desperate as Graysmith to find out the killer’s identity, all the while trying to coordinate with other jurisdictions, the press, and the public. Ruffalo in particular is a treat to watch, and I’m not going on a limb when I say that someday that young man will have an Oscar nom to his credit.

Fincher creates a edgy atmosphere throughout – you honestly believe Zodiac will leap out from any corner’s shadows to knife or gun you down. He also achieves the tough task of showing the passage of time efficiently – by showing the construction of a San Francisco skyscraper in stop-motion. Nice touches like that can make a film. And of course, Fincher is no stranger to descending to the depths of ourselves, what with movies like Seven, Panic Room, and Fight Club to his credit. With Zodiac, he’s managed to take a riveting story and make it even more compelling – even without a compelling ending in real life.

***1/2

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