Film’s mammoth length is its only shortcoming

Ally Melling

It’s always difficult to see a suspense movie based off real tragedies when the end result is inevitable. Last year, audiences squirmed watching doomed passengers aboard United 93 and gasped at the sad fate of a 1970s Israeli Olympic team in Munich.

However, it’s almost worse when the inevitable means the identity of a killer is never confirmed and the killer is never caught. How can the audience possibly walk away feeling complete?

This is Fight Club director David Fincher’s tricky challenge in Zodiac.

The film is based off files from the case of the infamous Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who terrorized San Francisco and the surrounding areas for half a decade in the ’60s and ’70s. The Zodiac Killer made a name for himself by sending eerie letters and puzzles to the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers in which he gave intimate knowledge of numerous murders, claimed responsibility for them and made threats to kill again. This resulted in a five-year media frenzy that haunted the city and its culture long after the letters ceased.

In this film interpretation, Robert Downey Jr. (A Scanner Darkly) plays Paul Avery, the Chronicle reporter who covered the Zodiac Killer beat, and who was later personally threatened by the killer. Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Brokeback Mountain’s Jake Gyllenhaal) helps and eventually surpasses Avery in the quest to discover the Zodiac Killer’s identity. Mark Ruffalo (All the King’s Men) also stars as Inspector David Toschi, the dedicated cop assigned to the Zodiac case who served as Steve McQueen’s inspiration for his character in the 1968 classic Bullitt.

Fans will be happy to see that Fincher slightly rehashes the feel of his disturbingly graphic 1995 classic, Se7en. Zodiac retains the washed-out look of his crime-solving drama style with straight shots and darkness. It skips the special effects camera angles utilized in Fight Club and Panic Room and uses a digital camera to film in a simple, almost documentary-like style.

But that’s not to say Zodiac is completely boring and uneventful. All the lead actors are completely energized. Downey Jr. is once again convincing as an eccentric, self-destructive oddball, and Gyllenhaal takes Graysmith’s obsession to appropriate lengths. The best is Ruffalo, who combines Toschi’s weariness and dedication with likeability and heart. There are also a lot of great cameos by other names such as Anthony Edwards, veteran of NBC’s “ER,” and Ghost Rider’s Donal Logue.

Some of the sequences of the Zodiac Killer in action are also surprisingly brutal. One particular scene shows the killer attacking two victims by a lake, tying them up and then stabbing them in the back repeatedly while they scream.

Zodiac’s only real low point is the length, running at two hours and 40 minutes. This kind of time frame is bearable with constant action, but Zodiac’s sporadic downtimes and overload of names and facts makes the runtime a little excruciating. Fincher was rumored to have trimmed the theatrical version down from a four-hour original cut, but it definitely could have stood for a little more cutting.

Zodiac succeeds in creating a grim, enthralling portrayal of the people who hunted one of America’s most notorious serial killers. Fincher cleverly manages to leave the audience with some closure and satisfaction despite the unsolved status of this ongoing mystery.

Go see Zodiac once, but be warned: You may not be sure whether you’re getting antsy from the built-up intrigue or from the fact that your legs have gone to sleep from sitting so long.


Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo

Directed by David Fincher

Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Rated R for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images

Stater rating (out of five):


Contact ALL correspondent Ally Melling at [email protected].