***/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+
starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards
screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith
directed by David Fincher
by Walter Chaw The best film of its kind since All the President's Men, David Fincher's Zodiac is another very fine telephone procedural drawn from another landmark bit of investigative journalism--though more fascinatingly, it's another time capsule of a very specific era, flash-frozen and suspended in Fincher's trademark amber. Still, by the very nature of its subject matter, Zodiac deals in millennial anxieties: the un-'catchable' foe; the unknowable cipher; the futility of the best efforts of good and smart men; and the disintegration of the nuclear family smashed to pudding in a diving bell collapsed under the pressure of the sinking outside. The film is as remarkable as it is because it's about something as simple and enchanted as the human animal--not just bedraggled San Francisco detective Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), but also Zodiac's two female victims and, in a strange echo, two almost-invisible wives: Toschi's (June Raphael) and that of newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Easy to say that actresses Raphael and Chloë Sevigny are wasted by being given nary anything to work with outside a terrified moment and a single speech, respectively; better to say that they assume the only function they can in a picture revolving around male cooperation and survival in a world that has reduced itself to the barbarous niceties of macho religions and arcane rituals. No accident that the Zodiac Killer's partiality to a medieval code is central to a key revelation.
Time telescopes in Zodiac--years, decades pass. In its breadth and setting, it reminds of James Ellroy's epic novel L.A. Confidential, and the constant to which Fincher (once slated to direct a three-hour adaptation of Ellroy's The Black Dahlia) returns is the desire to peek in the head-sized hatbox: the inexorable desire to know. Based on the struggle to identify a clues-leaving serial killer in the delicate, liminal period bridging the death of Flower Power idealism and the birth of Watergate cynicism, the film finds a hero first in maverick columnist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), then in Toschi, then in Graysmith. Fincher's boldest stroke is in establishing a prelapsarian setting, moving from there into a murder (Ciara Hughes's Darlene Ferrin enacts the fatale play in just five minutes of screentime), a silent discovery by a stoic and faceless motorcycle cop, and finally the modern information stream of a bustling newspaper room. You're reminded of Alan Pakula's WASHINGTON POST mock-up, of course, and the comparison only deepens with the idea that the sanctity of the working press--in mortal peril now more than it has ever been in the last hundred years--is the centre of the universe. Between this and 2006's Superman Returns, there's a rich sociological vein to be tapped concerning the desire to retain literacy in an increasingly post-literate world, starting with this minor, notable number of hero-journalists and, by extension, the shining idealism of Zodiac, wherein a library is the most important tool in a sleuth's arsenal.
Not as flashy as Fincher's other films, Zodiac is no less a science-fiction thriller than Alien3 or Fight Club, no less a noir-drenched procedural than Se7en, and no less an architectural construct than Panic Room or The Game. Gyllenhaal grows more haunted and sepulchral as the film wears on, so that the mental and emotional disintegration of Eagle Scout (First Class) Graysmith shadows the decline of the American collective psyche from the not-so-hot late-'60s through to the antiseptic '90s. Fincher poses the suggestion that Graysmith is the new American gothic: a seeker of answers not armed with questions worth answering (by the time the case is "solved," decades have passed without new events), wandering among the ruins with his nose to a book. It might not be too much to wonder if Fincher isn't talking here about Kirkegaard's quest for spirituality in all the tiny, mortifying little details of existence. Watching Zodiac somehow approximates the feeling of opportunities lost for human connection--a sequence where the family of a convicted pederast is interviewed rings especially hopeless. I feel like Fincher's found the perfect vehicle for his hallowed, echoing coolness in this story of lives given over to the vain pursuit of meaningful union. Graysmith declares that the only thing he wants is to look the Zodiac Killer in the eye and know that it's him. Looking back, I see traces of that desire in each of Fincher's protagonists. Looking back, I see traces of that desire in every pursuit of Man. Slow-moving, dense, and beautiful in its Longfellow on laudanum sort of way, Zodiac is in awe of the essential need, whatever the consequence, for a taste of the fruit.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Now making its Blu-ray debut, the 2-Disc Director's Cut of Zodiac, which contains nearly three hours of video-based extras, is, believe it or not, a model of restraint for tag-team obsessive Davids Fincher and Prior, last seen gazing into their navels on a 3-disc set of Panic Room. Averaging a bitrate of 38 mbps, the crown jewel of this package is the 2.40:1, 1080p transfer of the film itself, a thing of perfection whose magnificence quite honestly sneaks up on you as you catch yourself peering deep into an image that starts to seem almost holographic in its three-dimensionality. Shot with the Viper, the HiDef camera of choice among maverick filmmakers, Zodiac looks on the format like grainless celluloid, but not like celluloid that has fallen victim to DVNR; there were moments where I felt as if I was seeing things as they'd appear through a window onto the set. (I guess the much-ballyhooed "tapeless workflow" truly made a difference, as those telltale signs of digital video (comet tails, noise) that plague the Viper-lensed Miami Vice are conspicuously absent.) As an aside, colours are much more dynamic than they appeared on DVD. The attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is an ideal showcase for a highly nuanced ambience-and-dialogue-driven mix that sporadically flies into panic mode. Two commentary tracks likewise grace the feature, one with a self-amused yet aloof Fincher, the other a patchwork teaming actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. and, from a separate session, producer Brad Fischer, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and author James Ellroy, who's there strictly as a fanboy of Zodiac and California crime. Although Vanderbilt repeats a lot of what he says in Disc 2's featurettes, both yakkers come highly recommended, especially as an annotated guide to the picture's wilful deviations from historical record. Don't expect much gossip, though, with the discord between Fincher (who's not an active presence in the remaining supplements) and Downey limited to subtext except when the former accuses the latter of sometimes "swallowing his consonants."
Not inappropriately borrowing a page from the Errol Morris playbook (framing his interview subjects dead-centre against a white background, Prior apes the Interrotron as well as Morris's technique of cutting to black or fading out mid-interview), Zodiac's comprehensive documentary material--uniformly presented in 1080i--is divided into two groups on the second platter: "The Film" and "The Facts." These break down further into subcategories organized as follows:
"Zodiac Deciphered" (54 mins. in play-all mode)
"Zodiac Deciphered" (5 mins.)
Strictly preamble as Fischer and Vanderbilt tell a tale of securing the rights to Robert Graysmith's best-seller after Disney's option lapsed and ploughing ahead into research.
"Blue Rock Springs" (8 mins.)
Vanderbilt outlines his gambit of only depicting those Zodiac murders that left a surviving witness. (That's conscientious, I suppose, but the success of his intention to avoid horror-movie-style killings is definitely up for debate.) We also encounter the first of Prior's signature onscreen footnotes and dailies of footage from the prologue that had to be shot in 35mm because of the Viper's incapacity to record in slow-motion.
"The San Francisco Chronicle" (13 mins.)
The only thing that would make the endlessly looping outtakes of a simple insert in which Gyllenhaal's Graysmith tosses a sketchpad funnier would be a clip demonstrating how utterly negligible the shot is in context. The piece more or less examines the various tiers of Fincher's micromanagement style, as we discover that period editions of the CHRONICLE were recreated in full from microfiche references to lend the kind of credibility to the production design that if nothing else helped the director sleep at night.
"The Hall of Justice" (6 mins.)
Of particular interest here is the B-roll from a deleted scene that wasn't restored for the Director's Cut wherein Toschi and Anderson brief the city's schoolbus drivers on Zodiac's ultimately idle threats to pick off "the little darlings." Speaking of which, this is our most substantial glimpse of the real Toschi today.
"Presidio Heights" (5 mins.)
According to Fischer, John Carroll Lynch's channelling of Arthur Leigh Allen was uncanny, and it's my rare beef with this set that we have to take his word for it. But segments like this are no small compensation. On the surface it's your standard special-effects deconstruction, but Digital Domain's handiwork--like their complex recreation of the Washington & Cherry neighbourhood circa 1970--draws so little attention to itself as such in the movie proper that my mind was good and blown.
"Lake Berryessa" (7 mins.)
Fincher is treated with especial reverence as others remember him correcting the lead investigator of Zodiac's attack on Brian Hartnell and Cecilia Shepard with regards to the exact location of the murder site. Fincher subsequently describes the directing process through Vanderbilt so pithily I won't spoil it. Random observation: apparently the etiquette while shooting with the Viper is to call "Record!" instead of "Roll camera!".
"Obsession" (8 mins.)
Costume designer Casey Storm remembers Fincher thinking there'd be an outside chance the film's meticulous parsing of the evidence would result in the case being solved. A brief but no less imperative justification for the picture's implicit indictment of Allen offers that it's a consequence of the biased Toschi and Graysmith serving as our two main tour guides into the Byzantine world of the Zodiac.
Moving on, "The Visual Effects of Zodiac" (15 mins.) heralds the seamless contributions of Matte World Digital (note that Craig Barron, Fincher's one-time colleague at ILM, stubbornly calls the Star Wars movie they worked on together Revenge of the Jedi). CG blood always seemed blasphemous to me until Zodiac proved it can be convincing, and the rationale that Barron or his partner Eric Barba gives for it makes perfect sense: without the mess that squibs create, multiple takes of carnage are suddenly viable. As an aside, that's not Lynch in any of the composite glimpses of the killer. Rounding out this section are three "Previsualizations" comparing animatics of the Blue Rock Springs, Lake Berryessa, and San Francisco sequences to their finished counterparts via splitscreen, plus Zodiac's theatrical trailer in 1080p and DD 5.1.
"This is the Zodiac Speaking" (54 mins. in play-all mode)
"Lake Herman Road" (13 mins.)
A recap of the inaugural Zodiac murder, which established his M.O. (taking out couples parked at Inspiration Point) but which Vanderbilt and Fincher chose not to show. Prior has excavated a lot of complementary footage from the rubble of local newscasts for this comprehensive retrospective on the Zodiac's reign of terror, but none of it stings like the pure-Americana tableau of an Eagle Scout funeral held for the male victim.
"Blue Rock Springs" (23 mins.)
In a real coup, Prior managed to score talking heads from not only many of the retired cops who were first on the scene after the Zodiac struck, but also surviving victims Mike Mageau and Brian Hartnell. Mageau--a very old 57 and given to compulsively raising his arms--insists that he's physically fine and defends the honour of his married lover Darlene Ferrin. He breaks your heart, while Vallejo operator Nancy Slover does an impersonation of the Zodiac from memory that burrows under your skin and stays there.
"Lake Berryessa" (38 mins.)
Hartnell is gratifyingly eloquent in recounting his ordeal; though he says he "couldn't have scripted it better" with regards to Zodiac's precise re-enactment of his and Cecilia's stabbing (right down to the inane questions Hartnell's proxy asks--"I thought maybe I could squeeze a paper out of it"), the story takes many more turns the film couldn't accommodate. Describing the sensation of dying, Hartnell evocatively conjures the image of a flywheel.
"San Francisco" (29 mins.)
A Rashomon account of the Paul Stine murder and the clusterfuck that was the ensuing investigation. Here's what I want to know: how was it determined that "the suspect in general might be of Welsh ancestry" (to quote the police report) if there was barely any interaction with him? That's some keen observational prowess, unless of course the guy introduced himself as "Mr. Zeta-Jones."
"His Name was Arthur Leigh Allen" (43 mins.)
Last but certainly not least, a closer inspection of the evidence against Allen, who may not be the Zodiac but sure was one hell of a douchebag. Almost as compelling to witness as the transformation of Allen's frenemy Donald Cheney from Judas to potential Zodiac is the self-deceit of Allen's college roommate Norman Boudreau, who refuses to let proof of Allen's guilt tarnish the memory of his friend. I wish that criminal profiler Sharon Pagaling Hagan had been asked to qualify her claim that the Zodiac exhibited "no sadistic tendencies," however--the guy wasn't exactly merciful.
The Director's Cut, for what it's worth, reinstates a three-way phone call to obtain a search warrant for Allen's trailer, some dialogue filler, and 45 seconds of Contact-style radio-tuning over blackness to denote a transition in eras--an aural equivalent to the time-lapse construction of the Transamerica building. I didn't miss any of it, to be honest, and wish this BD had included the theatrical version as a branching option. Other than that, it's a home run. Originally published: January 26, 2009.