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The stars align for an excellent Zodiac

by Glen Baity

A lot of people don’t realize this film criticism thing is a part-time gig for me. I work days (and more than a few nights) as a newspaper reporter, which is why I was excited to see Zodiac, the newest film by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room). The true story of a serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it has the added appeal of centering around a newsroom, making it the perfect confluence of my personal interests. I often say that everyone enjoys movies for their own reasons, so let it be said that I was more than a little predisposed to enjoy Zodiac, and enjoy it I did.

Jake Gyllenhaal heads an excellent ensemble cast (including Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Robert Downey Jr.) as Robert Graysmith, an editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. When the newsroom starts receiving regular correspondence from a killer who christens himself Zodiac, Graysmith starts pursuing the case in his spare time, only to spend the next several years engulfed in its minutiae. His consuming need to unravel the mystery of Zodiac’s crimes is the focus of this lengthy film’s final two acts.

Fincher is a fine director, but he’s never tackled a project as ambitious as his latest. While his previous films have boasted ample entertainment value, they’ve also been plagued by a conspicuous lack of subtlety. Don’t misunderstand me: I loved Fight Club, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wanted to dismiss it as a heavy-handed, simple-minded love song to testosterone. As much as I continue to enjoy it, it is undoubtedly all of those things.

That goes double for the much-beloved Se7en, a fantastically creepy detective story with virtually no payoff and a frustratingly single-minded villain (it should be noted that I’m apparently the only person in the world who feels this way, so maybe I’m the brat).

Zodiac sees the stylistically accomplished director add new layers and density to his skill set, and the total package is formidable. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt immerse themselves in the gory details of the investigation, in the process making something reminiscent of a good James Ellroy yarn. To give you an idea, only five murders were ever definitively attached to Zodiac, though he claimed many more. Those five murders take place within the first hour, leaving a sizeable balance of the film for the procedural.

Those of you who look to this space regularly know how suspicious, even hostile, I can be toward the oft-abused phrase “Based on a True Story.” Zodiac makes such a claim, but after seeing the film, I have no reason to doubt it. Maybe it’s because I know firsthand what goes into a detailed news story, but Graysmith’s tireless pursuit of the facts represents the job description of any journalist worth his salt. And there are so many characters here, it seems unlikely that very much of the story has been condensed, at least not to the degree another director might have.

Of course, the considerable detail will be too much for some moviegoers who just want a taut, entertaining thriller. Zodiac is the latter, but by no means the former. In this age of endless “CSI” shows, however, it will no doubt find an audience hungry for the extensively-documented nuts and bolts of the investigation.

The Zodiac murderer remains unidentified, a fact that presents a challenge to any filmmaker telling this story. If you saw Hollywoodland last year, you know what it is to work toward a conclusion that is ultimately ambiguous and unsatisfying. Zodiac deals with that problem well. There’s no big reveal at the end – the facts being what they are, there really can’t be – but there’s a tense conclusion that gives the viewer a needed sense of reward.

Just know, however, that if you head to this film because it’s by the Fight Club guy, you might be in for more than you bargained for. Fincher is branching out with his latest, and the result is as intellectually satisfying as it is exhausting. The timeframe, along with certain elements of the plot, make it reminiscent of Spike Lee’s vastly underappreciated Summer of Sam. Like that film, Zodiac is a gift to true crime buffs that will probably be well-received by anyone who watches Court TV more than 20 hours a week.

On that last point, let me encourage you not to avoid this film because of its length and general lack of cheap thrills. Maybe it’s just the newshound in me, but there’s something immensely satisfying in immersing yourself in the details of a long, involved story, and it’s not an experience many films can bring to the party. Its Byzantine plot and marathon length (clocking in close to the three hour mark) command your full attention and commitment, but Zodiac ultimately wastes neither.

The first rule of e-mailing Glen Baity is: you do not e-mail Glen Baity at glen.baity@gmail.com.

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