Boulder Weekly | March 5, 2007
If you’ve seen Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, you may know that it’s loosely based on the notorious “Zodiac” murder spree that shook the San Francisco area in the early 1970s. In his titular 2007 retelling, director David Fincher takes the Sgt. Joe Friday approach in place of Eastwood’s macho magnum force. Instead of “Do you feel lucky, punk?” the M.O. is “Just the facts, ma’am.”

At a methodically paced 2 1/2 hours, Zodiac is a departure for Fincher, who connected with audiences with his flashy visual footwork in Fight Club and Seven. Working from two books by Robert Graysmith, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt straightforwardly recreate the case, effacing melodramatic traces of the typical Hollywood production. The results are intriguing, but not totally arresting.

In the footsteps of Joe Friday are San Francisco police detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). They’re called in when a self-proclaimed killer sends a cryptic letter to city newspapers detailing his psychopathic plans to murder again. Calling himself “Zodiac,” the letter’s author is suspected in a series of cold-blooded murders in northern California.

Commencing with a grisly homicide on July 4, 1969, Zodiac rises on the screen as an implosive comment on American violence. The same year that the U.S. was celebrating the Apollo Moon landing--and two years after California’s groovy “Summer of Love”--a woman and her beau are shot and left for dead under the stars on lovers’ lane. As the soundtrack, Donovan’s ominous “Hurdy Gurdy Man” plays an end-of-the-decade dirge.

Glumly honest in implication, this is a story about dead ends, false leads and the elusiveness of justice. From Dragnet to Cops, popular culture loves to enforce the myth that the police always get their man. In a sign of our skeptical times, Zodiac reverses the equation: It’s the bad guy who gets the police.

Aiming at content over style, Fincher gets workmanlike performances from his male leads, notably Ruffalo as the dedicated cop whose frustration mounts as the investigation drags on. But as boozy reporter Paul Avery, Robert Downey Jr. should be cited for mumbling in the 2nd degree.

Though Vanderbilt bases his script on “actual case histories,” he also elevates the role of Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). A shy and nerdy newspaper cartoonist, Graysmith is pictured as the closest thing to a hero. Coming down off Brokeback Mountain, Gyllenhaal falls back on his Donnie Darko mannerisms as Graysmith becomes increasingly obsessed with finding the killer.

Fincher seems scrupulous with the facts, but what he omits is just as potentially significant. By focusing on the police work--rather than on the victims or the public at large--the wider human dimension is left as a chalk outline. While interesting to follow, Zodiac’s long and winding road is largely flat.

While we watch, in surreal time-lapse, the construction of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid, we’re left to ponder the looming irresolutions of the Zodiac case. The key bit of dialogue falls to Graysmith and his estranged wife (Chloe Sevigny). “Nothing makes sense anymore,” he shrugs. Not insensibly, she can only answer: “Did it ever?”


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