David Fincher's methodical examination of the infamous Zodiac murders of the late 1960s and early 1970s may disappoint moviegoers expecting slick thrills: It's more ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976) than SE7EN (1995). But its dissection of the ultimate cold case, drawn from Robert Graysmith's best-seller, is a chilling exercise in soul-eroding anxiety.
July 4, 1969: A gunman ambushes a young couple (Ciara Hughes, Lee Norris) parked at a popular Vallejo, California, make-out spot, killing the woman and wounding the man. He reports his own crime to the police, and casually confesses to an earlier double homicide. A month later, three Bay Area newspapers — The San Francisco Chronicle, the Vallejo Times-Herald and The San Francisco Examiner — receive portions of a cipher and letters demanding that they run it on their front pages: The writer, who later identifies himself as "Zodiac," warns that failure to comply will precipitate a killing spree. Two months later, a picnicking couple (Pell James, Patrick Scott Lewis) in Napa is brutally stabbed by a hooded man; again, the boyfriend survives. Finally, a San Francisco taxi driver is shot to death in his own cab. Throughout, the killer barrages the police and media with taunting letters and phone calls, leaves tantalizing clues, claims responsibility for additional crimes, makes ominous threats and then simply stops.
Graysmith, a Chronicle cartoonist who watched the story unfold, who contributed peripherally to the investigation and later rescued Zodiac from obscurity, believes he knows who Zodiac was. His take, while endorsed by several key players, is controversial among hard-core Zodiac buffs, and there are lots of them. Like the Ripper and Black Dahlia cases, Zodiac is tailor-made for obsession, a lurid mystery that encapsulates an era's anxieties and contradictions. But San Francisco native Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt don't play it for certitude, and using three different actors to play the shadowy killer in the murder scenes (a device William Friedkin used in CRUISING) helps keep the options open. And the film's focus is on the hunters, not the hunted: It refracts the crime through the cops and journalists scarred by a cruel, ugly crime they couldn't crack. They include Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) himself, flamboyant Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), Vallejo and Napa County detectives Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) and Ken Narlow (Donal Logue), San Francisco homicide inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill (Philip Baker Hall, who also appeared in the low-budget 2006 ZODIAC) and even high-profile attorney Melvin Belli (Brian Cox). The film's greatest strength is the way it evokes the sense of dreamy, free-floating dread that suffused the transition from the '60s to the '70s: Widespread unease about the Vietnam War, the counterculture, urban decay and racial conflict were filtered and focused through the murders. Fincher gets it all right, and Donovan's hippie-dippy "Hurdy Gurdy Man," which bookends the story, has never sounded so hauntingly menacing. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh