Now Zodiac is a movie, directed by David Fincher from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt, and I suspect that those expecting a brooding serial-killer chiller on the order of Fincher's Seven will emerge disappointed. What interests Fincher most is not the hooded madman but rather the cops and reporters who doggedly pursued him. It is about the passage of time and the accumulation of massive amounts of information. The movie seems to unfold inside a cramped storage locker. And it is thrilling to behold.
Like the book, Vanderbilt's screenplay hopscotches among the Zodiac killings themselves (brutally efficient attacks on mostly young couples parked at or near lovers' lanes), the multiple police investigations in the various counties where the murders took place, and the parallel inquiries made by disheveled Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), who is eventually aided by the comically wholesome rookie cartoonist Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). The Zodiac christens himself with his astrological moniker, threatens attacks against schoolchildren if his letters and encrypted ciphers aren't printed in the pages of the Chronicle and, in one particularly absurd moment, demands an audience with famed litigator Melvin Belli (a gloriously hammy Brian Cox) on a local TV talk show. Yet, as the body count rises and the Bay Area trembles in fear, Fincher and Vanderbilt show us that it wasn't only the Zodiac who benefited from the ensuing media frenzy. Indeed, Avery, Graysmith, and San Francisco detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) who was one of the models for the Clint Eastwood character in the Zodiac-inspired Dirty Harry also know that they're in the spotlight and that this is a chance to transcend the routine of their everyday lives. Welcome to the cult of the celebrity serial killer.
At nearly three hours, and without a single hobbit in the cast, Zodiac is the sort of vast, richly involving pop epic that Hollywood seems incapable of making anymore, so it's little surprise that Fincher's influences derive from an earlier era of American film. From the vintage Paramount studio logo that opens the movie to the first bars of composer David Shire's musique concrete score and the early scenes of Graysmith arriving for work at the Chronicle's offices, it's clear that Fincher is transporting us back to the new American cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s specifically to the pared-down, fact-based procedurals of filmmakers such as Alan J. Pakula and Sidney Lumet. Fincher has used the latest technology (the same high-definition video cameras that Michael Mann used to shoot Miami Vice) to make a resolutely low-tech movie, and the result is a triumph of lighting, costumes and production design.
Fincher's talent has never been in doubt, but Zodiac is the first of his movies since Seven to seem more interested in people than in the possibilities of style and storytelling gamesmanship. And it is nearly impossible to watch the scenes of Gyllenhaal poring over old case files and chasing down possible leads (including one encounter with a serenely creepy movie projectionist, played by Charles Fleischer, that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck) without thinking of Fincher's own reported propensity for filming up to 70 takes of someone walking through a door. So Zodiac is at once a nearly perfect movie about the pursuit of perfection and a monument to irresolution.