Tuesday, July 31, 2007

'Zodiac' is an engrossing, intelligent thriller

“Director David Fincher made one of the darkest, most gruesome serial killer movies with “Seven.” With “Zodiac” he returns to the genre that put him on the map, but the second time around his approach is a bit different.

Fincher is one of the most stylish filmmakers working today. In “The Game” and “Fight Club” he concocted black humored mind-twisting thrillers where very little was what it seemed. For “Panic Room” he brought visual flair to a straight forward cat-and-mouse game. Some critics complained his style was showy simply for the sake of showing off.

For those expecting the flash of Fincher’s previous films, the feel of “Zodiac” may be disappointing, but Fincher makes the right choices. The film adopts the tone of gritty seventies films like “All the President’s Men” and “Serpico” and plays as well as the best films from the era. Fincher has created a film that is engrossing for the entirety of its nearly three-hour running time.

“Zodiac” tells the true story of the investigation of the unsolved case of the Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. The killer toyed with the press and police by sending encoded messages to newspapers asking them to be published or he’d kill again.

The film opens with the Zodiac’s first murder. Set to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” the kill is shocking in its abruptness. Fincher only showcases a few encounters with the Zodiac killer. There is no gore or blood in the film. Unlike the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises,” Fincher doesn’t rely on shock to scare, but builds a sense of menace and danger. This holds most true for a murder that occurs in broad daylight at a lake. Most thrillers play off our fears of danger lurking in the dark, but by flipping that convention, Fincher crafts a sequence that dries the mouth and gets the stomach butterflies fluttering.

In the wake of “Silence of the Lambs” most serial killer films have focused on getting into the head of the killer and psychoanalyzing their motives. The fictional killers of film have elaborate methods to their murders, but more often than not it all stems from being unloved as a child.

What makes “Zodiac” stand out in the crowd of generic serial killer movies is that it’s less about the killer and more about the obsession that grips his pursuers, which include San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).

The film’s pacing while at times slow keeps things moving with a growing sense of anxiety as the film’s lead characters, especially Gyllenhaal become fixated on discovering the identity of the Zodiac killer.

The cast from the leads to the film’s smaller characters is astonishingly good especially Downey’s Avery, a scene stealer that tosses out cynical, caustic one-liners. He reluctantly takes Gyllenhaal’s Goldsmith under his wing before succumbing to drugs and alcohol.

We all know about Downey’s sordid drug laced past and that knowledge gives an extra weight to the performance. Following “A Scanner Darkly,” this is Downey’s second recent film playing a drug addict. Downey is clearly working through his demons. Where “Darkly” was a tongue-in-cheek comic turn, in “Zodiac” he taps into his own life to add to depth to the usual drugged out cliché.

The film really has two halves. The first focuses on the Downey and Gyllenhaal alliance to discover the Zodiac’s identity. The second half has Gyllenhaal form a new semi-partnership with Toschi. Ruffalo, a talented actor who has been stuck in fluff such as “13 Going on 30” and “Just Like Heaven” is excellent as the weary cop who inspired Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt.” The worn out cop is a tired archetype, but Ruffalo rises above it, but playing it with sincerity and understatement.

Brian Cox (“The Bourne Supremacy”) as a celebrity psychiatrist, Anthony Edwards (“E.R.”) as Toschi’s partner and John Carroll Lynch (“The Drew Carey Show”) as one of lead suspects all provide solid support. But Gyllenhaal is the film’s lead and it is up to him to carry the film.

Gyllenhaal portrayal of Goldsmith as he slowly and completely gives his life over to his pursuit of the Zodiac killer is nuanced and effective. His fixation grows from mere curiosity into a need to know the truth. Everything including his wife (the underused Chloë Sevigny) and kids falls to the wayside.

In a way obsession is the film’s ultimate villain and the film’s driving force. Many have fallen to the obsession of the Zodiac, reportedly, even Fincher whose own digging for information yielded new clues. Fincher captures how unhealthy fascination can consume someone and that’s what makes “Zodiac” more than just another serial killer movie.

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