Directed by David Fincher
What are you afraid of? Is it the sound of steel blades across metal? A ghostly face on a hulking body in the shadows next door? That sound in the woods that only seems to arise when you’ve just been separated from friends? For me, first a growing boy desensitized to the world by all the media I was exposed to and now a man interested in how they make the creeps we see onscreen, there isn’t a lot that scares me when the lights go dim in a theater. My true fears manifest themselves as a result of the insanity of the world we live in. You try and go about your day, reacting to people in a logical manner, but more and more the people we face display behavior that is far from logical. At any moment that person standing beside you at the train stop could decide to give you a little shove as the train is approaching. That woman who appears lost in the mall parking lot could be waiting for you to turn around to bury a knife in your back. It’s a little unsettling to think that at any time of the day, someone could ring your doorbell, force their way in and cut your family down in front of you. These are the times we live in, and it’s only getting worse. Sometimes these everyday fears come to light.
In the late 1960’s the citizens of San Francisco were terrorized by a brilliant serial killer who called himself The Zodiac. The most frightening thing about this man was not only the ferocity and coldheartedness with which he carried out his acts, but the seemingly random pattern of his attacks. This could happen to you, at any time.
Our modern film adaptation of this tale opens with a lot of promise. Coded letters are delivered to the heads of three major San Francisco newspapers along with a promise that if these codes are not printed, more people will die. Having an interest in codes and puzzles himself, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a timid cartoonist at one such newspaper, is instantly drawn to this enigma. At the same paper charismatic veteran reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) seems content to milk this sensational story for all it's worth. Meanwhile, Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), are assigned to the case and spend the bulk of the movie sharing information with ... well ... everyone!
So now you’ve got two groups of main characters: the cops bound by duty to hunt down the horrible killer and the reporters who do their fair share of uncovering clues themselves. A good amount of witty dialogue and a retro setting will remind you of All the President’s Men, but even though amusing on several occasions, Gyllenhaal and Downey fall miles short of Redford and Hoffman. Perhaps it is because the characters are never given the opportunity to gel properly. The inspectors also spend a great deal of time trading quips and engaging in, dare I say it, Jaws-esque moments in which we see that even men hunting down a killer can get tangled up in the bureaucracy of it all. Hour one is brisk. All of this back and forth is quite enjoyable to watch, and I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion ... not knowing the terror that waited for me in hour two.
With seriously brutal killings, a solid mystery laid out and some fun conversation between very believable characters, Zodiac seems like a winner. Gyllenhaal plays a Peter Parker like straight man to Downey’s hard drinking, smoking, drug abusing, larger than life established reporter whose only interest in the young cartoonist seems to be his freakish ability to unravel The Zodiac’s clues. Similarly our two detectives, Ruffalo and Edwards, exhibit the same type of relationship, only with far fewer sparks. This leads to trouble as the cops become practically the sole storytellers of the film. Lucky us, there's still an hour and a half to go. That realization is when the true terror begins.
Eventually the cases against all the Zodiac suspects fall apart, the killings aren’t shown anymore and all supporting characters that provided any enjoyable moments in this film are abandoned. What’s left is a long, tedious look into an obsession more intense than what Jim Carrey spent on The Number 23. As I fought the urge to sleep my way through Gyllenhaal’s paper shuffling and running through the rain, I found myself slipping further down the spiral of extreme boredom and reciting Costner's infamous quote from a certain movie about JFK: "Back ... and to the left. Baaaaaack and to the left. BACK ... and to ... the left." While sitting there in my seat, I realized the true horror of Zodiac came in the form of just how numb my ass was getting.
The tag line for Zodiac is “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.” This is true as I felt the life draining out my ears as I struggled through the last hour, only to be met with an ending so unfulfilling that it hardly seemed worth it. It’s like climbing Mount Everest and upon reaching the top finding a TGI Friday's there packed with jocks hitting on high-haired Jersey girls. That is what I came all this way for? Bah!
Be assured that the only reason Zodiac can be considered a genre film is because horror fans place serial killers alongside pirates, zombies ... and sometimes ninjas and monkeys. The couple of brutal killings and snappy banter in no way forgive the pit of soul-sucking boredom that this movie becomes. On the positive side I can honestly say that every actor was fully believable and you could tell they gave their all, but when the writing isn’t there, it just doesn’t matter, and when the film deteriorates into Gyllenhaal scrambling around for an hour, it matters even less. I give Fincher credit for creating slight moments of creepiness throughout the film, but from the director who gave us instant cult classics like Se7en and Fight Club, I expected so much more. Zodiac’s endless scenes of rain will hardly be mistaken for art in film. Blade Runner took that prize. If Fincher was looking to depart from the slick, high contrast cities he’s become known for in the movies we love, he got his wish.
2 out of 5
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