David Fincher’s Zodiac floats through the 1970s and beyond, often in a dreamlike state. A story about a notorious serial killer and those investigating him, it’s the period backdrop where Fincher and his crew are most effective. Whether his vision of the times is accurate is hard to gauge, but peering back through the lens of memory with Zodiac superimposed on top brought to the fore feelings of nostalgia. And, in fact, period pieces can never be completely accurate. They live and die in our own flawed remembrances of times gone by.
Fincher is not afraid of the most common filmmaking devices used to evoke the time: music and cars. A filmmaker could all-too-easily succumb to laziness in using these ready-made props, but Fincher’s career-spanning attention to meticulous detail, and his reputation as a bit of a martinet contradicts such a characterization. Sure, just like all films that rely on classic car collectors to provide the vehicles, there is no rust to be seen, and all the model years hover a little too near the story’s timeline, but that’s just nitpicking. The music manages to steer clear of the more clichéd fare that has been used in other films that take place in the same period. Three Dog Night’s Easy To Be Hard complements the film’s opening, working in concert with the visuals to create that dreamlike state mentioned above. Additionally, Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man is used effectively as both a framing device and a sublimely menacing song that establishes atmosphere.
Equally, however, it is the well-done setwork that keeps this very modern film rooted in the past.
The newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle is populated by IBM Selectric typewriters and pneumatic tubes, not a computer in sight. The phones are vintage Ma Bell stock, and all the televisions are paneled in false wood grain. To demonstrate how far we’ve moved in thirty-odd years, there’s even an overflowing ashtray mounted to a wall next to the elevator.
None of it is overdone. Years are arbitrary numbers, and the coming of a new one doesn’t require a complete makeover from one interior style to another. The mundane places where life is lived on a daily basis are a conglomeration of what’s available for years on shelf or in showroom, so you never see a space that screams period kitsch. That’s what makes it feel authentic. From desks at a police hall, to the homes of the protagonists, and particularly to a break room at a factory, the sets are so effective at taking the viewer back that it is easy to get lost in it all and forget the grisly nature of the story. Fincher can take the blame for that. Many scenes, especially those that take place at night (and have the most computer-generated imagery), have an intoxicating, somnambulistic quality that overcomes the dread. Or, they enter into such a visual soup that the action in the scene is what moves to the background. Sometimes, indeed, it is apparent where most of the hard work in a scene paid off.
There is a compelling story to the movie. Serial killers hold a mystique in our culture, albeit macabre. Fascinating in their ferocity and disdain for the most cherished rules we live by, it’s hard to understand how such deliberate killers can be considered as anything other than insane, or at least sociopathic. What makes the Zodiac Killer ripe for cinema are his provocations. He didn’t just kill, he bragged about it, reveling in his own cleverness with childish glee as he thumbed his nose at police, press, and public year after year. He was never caught, but the film makes no bones about hanging guilt on a real-life suspect, although with qualifications flashed onscreen before the final credits.
The twists and turns, breakthroughs and frustrations, of the real life case are far too numerous for any single film to hold, and Zodiac suffers for that. In addition, the film’s focusing in on Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Robert Goldsmith, a Chronicle cartoonist, as the principle protagonist, serves only to burden the viewer with the flaws of his character.
Goldsmith as a hangdog, socially awkward man-child who thinks his way into obsessive compulsive behavior about the Zodiac Killer unfortunately brings to the fore, with effect, all the traits that make his character annoying. Whereas, just across the way, as it were, Mark Ruffalo works wonders with David Toschi, a San Francisco police detective rich enough in source material that Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood both starred in blockbusters as cops loosely based on Toschi. Zodiac is miles away from being kin to Bullitt and Dirty Harry, but Ruffalo and his character could have served the film better if their prominence were reversed with Gyllenhaal’s Goldsmith. For that matter, the entire ensemble of police officers investigating the killings, Anthony Edwards as Toschi’s partner William Armstrong, Elias Koteas as Sgt. Jack Mulanax of the Vallejo police, and Donal Logue as Ken Narlow of the Napa County Sheriff’s Department, all give credible and intriguing performances, displaying with aplomb the interplay and rivalries of cross-jurisdictional police work.
One other performance worth mentioning is that of Robert Downey Jr. as Chronicle reporter Paul Avery. Avery was the lead covering the killings for the Chronicle, but nevertheless, his character feels tacked on, and when he moves away from the main story line, Fincher struggles to maintain his relevance, and to provide a resolution to his seeming disappearance from the plot. This isn’t Downey’s fault, he was as good as anyone else in the film. Reality happened to intrude on the conventions of plot here. Avery moved on to other stories and other newspapers in real life, but the normal comings and goings that we experience in our professional lives have little place in the compactness of film, and so the viewer has to endure further scenes with Avery beyond where he should have left the film completely.
As visually compelling as the film is, the story feels crammed in and overlong at the same time. It succeeds in moments of tension, abandons this method, then fails to resurrect it to effect once it becomes clear there will be no grand resolution.