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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Zodiac: The Director’s Cut (2007)

After having such a good time re-watching David Fincher’s films Se7en (click here for my review) and Fight Club (click here for my review), I decided to take another look at Zodiac.

It was Zodiac that cemented David Fincher in my mind as one of the most amazing directors working today.  I knew he was associated with Alien 3, but that he had that film taken away from him.  (I have a warm spot in my heart for the third Alien film, even though I still see it as a total betrayal of everything that made James Cameron’s Aliens so great.)  I knew he had directed Se7en and Fight Club, but while I immediately recognized that both of those films were clearly made by people with an enormous amount of skill, neither was a film I really loved.  (I have since come to really, really dig Fight Club, but that first time I saw it I think I was a bit overwhelmed by it.)

Something about Zodiac really intrigued me when it was released, but despite that I never got to see it in theatres.  It was only when the film was released on DVD that I tracked it down and watched it.  (I own the Director’s Cut DVD.  This is the version I’m reviewing now, and the only one I’ve ever seen, so I can’t compare it to the theatrical version.)

It blew me away, and I am still in love with it when re-watching it now.

Every frame of the film feels like the result of an incredible amount of focus and creative effort.  It’s clear that an extraordinary amount of detail was pored into the sets, the costumes, the cars, the props, everything, all guided by the skilled eye of a visionary director: David Fincher.  Set over several decades, Zodiac beautifully captures the feel of the different eras, both through subtly altering the look of key sets (like the San Francisco Chronicle office set) and through some stunning visual effects shots (such as a shot made to look like a time-lapse reconstruction of the building of the Transamerica Pyramid).

Speaking of the film’s visual effects, the DVD’s top-notch special features reveal that Zodiac is awash in incredibly subtle, absolutely photo-realistic visual effects that were used to recreate key real locations in the San Francisco area from the ’60s and ’70s.  Most notably, in my mind, is the corner of Washington and Cherry at which the Zodiac killer murdered an unfortunate cab-driver.  The scene when inspectors Toschi and Armstrong arrive at Washington and Cherry to investigate the murder is a tense scene, but when watching it I didn’t give one thought to the scene’s environment.  I was shocked to discover that the corner was almost entirely created, in the film, through CGI effects used to rebuild that street-corner as close as humanly possible to what it looked like in 1969.  It’s an astounding achievement, and presages the more eye-catching (but equally convincing) visual effects work that Mr. Fincher would master in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (click here for my review).

Zodiac is a bizarrely paced and structured film because — mirroring the real-life events the film depicts — the murders stop fairly early in the film (about 45 minutes into this over two-and-a-half-hour movie).  And the film, and the story being told, ends without any resolution!  The Zodiac killer was never caught, nor even identified!  (Though many figures involved in the case have their theories, and the film makes a strong case for a particular suspect.)  I know that lack of closure frustrates many viewers of this film, who find themselves unsatisfied to arrive at the end of this lengthy story only to be left without any definitive answers.

But, to me, that’s the whole point of the film!  Zodiac is about all the ways in which life doesn’t fit itself into neat story-telling boxes.  Good doesn’t always triumph dramatically over evil, and many stories don’t come to definitive, conclusive endings.  Sometimes things just fade away…

That’s frustrating and sad and rather tragic — which is exactly the point of the film.  It’s the way we deal with life’s lack of closure that leads us to either crumble under the weight of events, or to persevere.

Zodiac’s ensemble is strong.  Jake Gyllenhaal is endearingly weird as the cartoonist Robert Graysmith who, years after the murder, became obsessed with solving the case.  But it’s Robert Downey Jr. who steals the show as the charismatic, boisterous, too-much-personality-for-the-room crime reporter Paul Avery.  Back in 2007, Robert Downey Jr. had gotten his life back under control and was doing some amazing work in films like this and the magnificent Kiss Kiss bang Bang, but he hadn’t yet exploded into a huge movie-star.  Watching this film is to see a talent on the brink of enormous success.

I also absolutely adore the work of Mark Ruffalo as the dogged Inspector Toschi, the real-life detective (and model for Steve McQueen’s Bullitt!) tasked with solving the Zodiac case.  Mr. Ruffalo has never been better, in my opinion.  He brings such world-weary humanity to the role, allowing us to see Mr. Toschi’s enormous strength and also his weaknesses, and endowing the character with terrific depth and animal-cracker-eating detail.  I must also praise the work of Anthony Edwards as Toschi’s partner, Inspector Armstrong.  I never watched ER, but Mr. Edwards is phenomenal in this film.  Armstrong is probably the most moral character in the film, but he never becomes boring — Mr. Edwards keeps him funny, interesting, and very human.

The rest of the cast is incredibly deep.  There’s Brian Cox, chewing up all the scenery he can find as the blow-hard TV star Melvin Belli.  There’s John Carroll Lynch, so creepy as key Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen.  Chloe Sevigny is sweet and kind as Robert Graysmith’s girlfriend then wife then ex-wife.  Elias Koteas brings a lot of life to a small role as Sgt. Jack Mulanax, as does Dermot Mulroney as Captain Lee, Toschi and Armstrong’s supervisor.  Philip Baker Hall is always compelling to watch as handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill, and you’ve just gotta love Charles Fleischer’s spooky turn as late-in-the-game Zodiac suspect Bob Vaughn.

In the special features, the filmmakers claim that the movie doesn’t identify one Zodiac suspect as their choice for the “real killer,” but I don’t agree.  If there’s one teensy tiny flaw that this movie possesses, this is it.  Everything about the scene, half-way through the film, in which the police question Arthur Leigh Allen screams that this man is the Zodiac.  The DVD’s extensive (and absolutely worth-watching) special features gives some more details that cast some doubt as to his being the Zodiac, whereas I felt the actual movie very strongly identified him as the killer.  That may have been a slight mis-step.

But, start-to-finish, David Fincher and his team demonstrated incredible attention to historical detail that is jaw-dropping, all-the-while never forgetting that they were making a compelling drama/thriller and not a history-lesson.  I find Zodiac to be an incredibly compelling, incredibly sad story — only magnified by the fact that it all really happened.  Real life doesn’t end like Dirty Harry.

Reviews of other David Fincher films: Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999),  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The Social Network (2010).

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