Review: ‘Zodiac’

A psycho-killer detective story with a less-than-thrilling pace and length.

In the late 1960’s around the San Francisco Bay area, a serial killer is on the loose. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a staff political cartoonist at a newspaper that receives a cypher, a coded message that might have come from the killer himself. Journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) takes an interest in the mysterious killer who is quickly dubbed “The Zodiac,” but it’s Graysmith who solves the cypher that reveals hints to the identity of the killer. While the body count goes up and the cyphers continue to arrive, “The Zodiac” is on everyone’s mind, but when the bodies stop and messages stop coming, apathy replaces fear as even Avery concedes that the trail has gone cold and the killer may never found. Years after the case is left unsolved, can Graysmith prove that the police had all the evidence they needed to reveal the killer all along before his obsession makes him the Zodiac’s final victim?

Director David Fincher know how to tell a story and often takes his time doing so. In a story about fulfilling an obsession and the lonely years it can take to do so, Zodiac suffers from a film that follows too closely the emotion of the characters in the film. Perhaps it is a compliment to the director that, on film, it really feels like years are going by as the minutes tick toward the credits. While the story of both the Zodiac and the humble cartoonist trying to identify the killer are interesting, the film does a better job at contributing to the apathy of the characters in the film: solve it or let it go already.

Truth be told, director Christopher Nolan might have been a better fit for this book translated to film. With films ranging from Memento to Batman Begins, Nolan has a way of telling stories about obsession and revenge. This brings up another problem with Zodiac: motivation. The character of Robert Graysmith is portrayed as an every-man, meek and mild mannered who becomes obsessed to the point of risking both his professional and personal life, but the portrayal is so subtle that, again, it’s hard to stay interested in him or what he’s doing as dead end after dead end grinds his civilian investigation to a halt.

Thrillers like Panic Room and Fight Club are Fincher’s bread and butter, but Zodiac unfolds into more of a burnout than a slow-burn thriller. Fans will likely argue that the apathy of the characters mirrored by the audience actually serves to point out a lack of caring and inaction in our society, but that kind of preaching is like a politician expecting to get re-elected by any group same voters he accuses of “bad parents.” In the final scene when the supposed hero finally sees the assumed villain, everyone looking at their watch to catch the time will miss whatever subtlety Jake Gyllenhaal brought to his role simply because, like most of San Francisco in the film, we just don’t care anymore.

(a one skull out of four recommendation)

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