Fincher rose to prominence with the high-octane serial killer movie Se7en and cemented his cult status among adrenaline junkies with Fight Club. While these movies are absurdly popular in their own right, Zodiac is almost nothing like either of them.
The movie follows the famed Zodiac killer, a random murderer who terrorized the entire state of California in the late 60s and early 70s. Zodiac, the name the criminal gave himself, was famous not only for the trails of bodies he left in his wake, but for his addiction to fame. He would send encoded messages to the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as other newspapers, hinting that they contained clues to his identity and his future crimes.
The Chronicle newspapermen, as well as the police detectives assigned to the case, are at the focal point of the film. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the reporter assigned to cover the case, and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a political cartoonist with a penchant for cracking codes, are the central characters from the newspaper. Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards also star as inspectors David Toschi and William Armstrong, respectively, the detectives chasing the wispy trail of smoke that Zodiac leaves behind.
The other main player in the film is the time period. It is incredibly intriguing to watch the way that cops and reporters for that matter worked a case not so long ago. In this day and age, we are spoiled by the super-technology exhibited in movies and television shows like 24, where agents can track, zoom in on and correctly identify any person, anywhere. In Zodiac, Toschi and Graysmith are forced to dig through case files that are actually files in boxes.
Zodiac features one of the year's strongest and deepest casts. Robert Downey Jr. is a phenomenal actor, although it is difficult for us to separate his screen persona from his real one, a case that ties him up playing mostly drug-addicted characters. Ruffalo shines as well as the beleaguered Insp. Toschi, the man unfortunate enough to be put in charge of the dead-end case. While angry with his situation, Ruffalo's Toschi is still too honorable to become completely obsessed.
Gyllenhaal is the actor to whom the major weight of the film falls, and for the first time, I feel he turned in a really worthy performance. I hadn't been won over by Gyllenhaal before Zodiac, but I guess I can begin to see what everyone has been making such a fuss about lately. His Graysmith is the most obsessed character, and for no reason other than he is interested.
At heart he is a nerdy cartoonist, and completely out of his league in the dark world inhabited by Zodiac, but that does not stop him from diving in and devoting his life to that world.
For many reasons, the Zodiac case is an interesting one to tackle in a feature film. One reason is that the villain was never actually apprehended, a plot non-twist allowing Fincher to really open up his filmmaking style. While focusing on this rather lurid subject matter, Fincher nearly departs from his previous directorial efforts. He has almost removed the hyper-violence, and what we get instead is a taut thriller on a more intellectual level.
The film is a brooding meditation on obsession, on both micro and macro levels from Graysmith's obsession to the obsession of the nation with the gruesome story. While a little long, it presents horror when horror is merited, but in the end, explains why Fincher will be around for a while.