The story begins with the murder of a young man and woman in Benicia, California in December 1968. Or possibly it starts with the stabbing of a girl in Riverside in October 1966, or with the shooting of a couple in Lompoc in June 1963. It continues through a string of at least 5 brutal killings, but there may have been 13, or even as many as 37. Most perplexing of all, the story has no firm ending. The murderer is never captured or positively identified. He may have been a man named Arthur Leigh Allen. Or maybe not.
Such are the existential dilemmas of director David Fincher's latest foray into the cinema of psychopathology, the gripping, exceptionally well-wrought Zodiac. A meticulous reexamination of the real-life Zodiac killings that plagued the Bay Area in the late 1960s and 1970s, the film is "CSI" as re-imagined by Samuel Beckett, a law enforcement and media procedural in which the procedure itself, rather than its outcome, is the purpose.
A former music-video auteur, Fincher largely made his name in 1995 with the grand guignol murder fantasy Se7en, arguably the most influential genre film of the last 15 years directed by someone not named Tarantino. But where Se7en, with its stygian gloom and theatrical executions, inflated the serial killer genre to gothic proportions, Zodiac lets the air back out. It is methodical rather than macabre, clinical rather than cruel. Consciously modeled on All the President's Men, it shares that film's knack for almost ostentatious understatement.
Early in the movie there are two gruesome, would-be double murders. (In each case, one of the intended victims remarkably survives.) But rather than up the ante in typical fashion, with an escalating series of violent assaults, Zodiac quickly sprawls outward, following the ripples created by the initial bloodshed. The killer begins writing letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, full of coded clues and threats. The paper's flamboyant, dissolute crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), begins covering the case, as does, more oddly, a timid editorial cartoonist named Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). When the unknown killer, who dubs himself "Zodiac," murders a cabbie in San Francisco, another pair of investigators is added to the mix in police officers Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).
As the weeks and years pass, clues are uncovered, misplaced, debunked. Threats of further violence--including, famously, a promise to murder a schoolbus full of children--are mailed to the Chronicle. Suspects multiply, even as the men investigating them begin to dwindle. Avery slips into alcoholism and drug abuse; Armstrong transfers to another job in the department. Even supercop Toschi (the real-life model for Steve McQueen's "Bullitt") gradually moves on to other cases, other priorities. As everyone else's interest fades, though, Graysmith, the cartoonist, becomes ever more obsessed with the case, gradually reigniting the embers of the cold investigation.
Throughout, there are subtle nods to the changes taking place in American culture in the late '60s and '70s, and to the Zodiac killer's modest role in hastening them. The earliest scenes from the film, of teens cruising the innocent streets of California, could be outtakes from America Graffiti. Later, we find cop Toschi at a special screening of Dirty Harry, a film loosely based on the hunt for the Zodiac killer (in it, the psycho, "Scorpio," really does abduct the schoolkids) and a harbinger of the nation's shifting mood on crime. Irritated by the movie's implicit rebuke of his work, Toschi leaves the theater early. "No need for due process, right?" he grumbles afterward.
The cast--which also features Chloë Sevigny, Brian Cox, and John Carroll Lynch--is uniformly excellent, but the real star of Zodiac is Fincher, whose craftsmanship shows in every frame. Visually, the film is a pleasure: Shot entirely with a digital camera, it has a slight golden hue that reinforces the theme of an America just beginning to lose its innocence. The design and costumes are spot on, conjuring that most implausible of eras in a manner simultaneously precise and dreamlike.
But it's in the movie's pacing that Fincher's touch shows most clearly. This is a film in which, frequently, not very much is happening: Reporters and investigators try to crack a code or interview suspects or discuss elements of the crimes. There are no gunfights or car chases. Yet talky though the film is (and long, clocking in at over two and a half hours), it has an almost breathless momentum. Though the dialogue itself is not particularly memorable, the entire cast crackles in conversation; they have their patter down. One early scene, in which policeman Armstrong tries to negotiate some thorny jurisdictional conflicts with officers at two other departments, is a particular pleasure, transmuting one of the dullest subjects ever committed to celluloid into gold. Whatever advice or direction Fincher may have offered his performers on their line readings--his verbal choreography, for want of a better term--paid off handsomely.
Indeed, it's difficult to think of a more perfect pairing of director and project than Zodiac, which attaches Fincher's legendarily painstaking methods to a story about procedure and obsession. It's not merely the director's tendency to shoot and re-shoot a given scene dozens of times. ("The first day of production in San Francisco we shot 56 takes of Mark and Jake," Fincher explained to Entertainment Weekly, "and it's the 56th take that's in the movie.") Along with screenwriter James Vanderbilt, Fincher also spent months interviewing witnesses and investigators and hiring forensic experts to examine the Zodiac evidence anew. Just as Graysmith, the killer's most tireless pursuer (on whose books the screenplay was based), had done some 30 years earlier, the filmmakers essentially reinvestigated the case from the ground up. It is perhaps thanks to this doggedness that Zodiac captures so persuasively that feeling, familiar to anyone who's worked long enough in journalism (or, I imagine, law enforcement), that the truth might be just around the corner, that one more scrap of evidence, one more phone call, could make all the pieces of the puzzle fit together at last. Like Graysmith, Fincher has madness in his method; unlike him, he has found what he was looking for.
When I launched this column back in 2004, it was with the thought that more people watch any given movie on video than in theaters, and consequently most film criticism is published months before readers will need it. Since then, the broad trend toward video watching has continued, but my individual trend toward video reviewing has remained stubbornly individual. So, after three visionary years, I give in. Rather than be theoretically ahead of the curve but, in the most practical sense, several months behind it, I will attempt to rejoin the pack. Starting in the next few weeks, I'll be writing reviews of theatrical releases on a weekly basis. The "Home Movies" column may make an occasional reappearance but, like Betamax, pet rocks, and other revolutions for which the world wasn't yet ready, it will for the time being slouch into a comfortable retirement.