MovieMantz Review: ‘Zodiac’

Hollywood Stars Align For 'Zodiac'

by Scott Mantz

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by: David Fincher

Hard to believe that it's been five years since David Fincher's last film (that would be 2002's "Panic Room"), but the visionary director is back with a doozie the sweeping $75 million-budgeted serial killer thriller "Zodiac." Though the super-intense subject matter is bound to invite comparisons to Fincher's best-known film, 1995's groundbreaking "Se7en," "Zodiac" is actually much closer in tone and spirit to the 1976 classic "All the President's Men" right down to the newsroom setting, the presence of a Deep Throat-style informant and an effective musical score composed by that film's David Shire.

Based on the real-life hunt for a modern day Jack the Ripper who taunted the police with his cryptic letters and terrorized the Bay Area in the late '60s and early '70s, "Zodiac" tells the story of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a shy cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who wound up dedicating his life to tracking down the elusive murderer. What he lacked in experience he made up for with his ability to decipher the mysterious letters, but he also knew the right people including Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the Chronicle's cynical crime reporter, and Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the ambitious Homicide Inspector for the SFPD. But despite numerous clues leading to the obvious, the killer managed to stay one step ahead of the game a game that would ultimately haunt his obsessed pursuers for the rest of their lives.

It's a testament to Fincher's incredible talent that "Zodiac" doesn't just take place in the '70s it looks and feels like it was actually made in the '70s. His dark, moody attention to detail is as spectacular as always, with interior shots that seamlessly replicate the atmosphere of the Chronicle's newsroom and impressive exteriors that could never have been reproduced on some flimsy studio backlot. And the murders that are depicted in the film are so scary, intense and well executed (no pun intended!), you can't help but sit on the edge of your seat and bite your nails down to the bone.

But with a running time of 2 hours and 36 minutes, "Zodiac" feels a bit too long, and the very talky thriller is so densely packed with information that it can be hard to follow. And despite the presence of lower-third locators indicating when and where the various scenes are taking place, one never senses the passage of time a problem further complicated by the fact that many of the main characters, particularly the one played by the young-looking Jake Gyllenhaal, never seem to age.

And despite being based on his book, the motive for Robert Graysmith to give up everything and help track down the Zodiac killer just because he "wants to help" seems like a weak foundation on which to build such a life-threatening pursuit. But Gyllenhaal gives a deeply engaging performance, while Robert Downey Jr. provides some comic relief as his rebellious colleague and Mark Ruffalo is terrific as his reluctant informant. Less developed, but still effective are Chloe Sevigny as Gyllenhaal's frustrated wife, Anthony Edwards as Ruffalo's burned-out partner and a scene-stealing Brian Cox as famed attorney Melvin Belli.

Since the killer was never identified (at least, not officially), the Zodiac continues to be one of the most famous cold cases in American history. That may be frustrating to moviegoers looking for closure after following such a challenging film, but that?s what also makes the end result so haunting. Even though "Zodiac" alludes to who the killer may have been, the fact that he may still be out there keeps the chills going long after the house lights come up.


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