Movie Review 2007 #87: Zodiac

Through the office and kindness of a coworker and friend, Mike, I finally got to see this movie about the Zodiac killer, as seen through the lives of several SF inhabitants who live through his reign of terror. Zodiac stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Robert Downey Jr.


I had complained that Carrey was the wrong person to portray the obsessed Walter Sparrow in my review of The Number 23.
Here, the director and the actors get it *right*.
Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who is and becomes the center of events as the Zodiac murders start to unfold in the Bay area in the late 1960’s. Robert Downey Jr. plays Paul Avery, a columnist who taunts and teases the Zodiac, and contributes in his own way to the efforts in breaking the Zodiac’s cyphers, and solving the mystery of his identity. Edwards and Ruffalo play a pair of inspectors (detectives) also wrapped up in the cases.
The movie is a little less about the events around the Zodiac, and much more about these individuals and their relationship to each other, the killings, and how it changes them. We see how the obsession and drive and pressures of the Zodiac’s murders puts each of the four principals in a pressure cooker, with different results. The main character, and our viewpoint for much of the movie, is Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith, who becomes obsessed to an extreme with finding the identity of Zodiac, even when others have given up, moved on, or have been burned out by the killer’s spree. His obsession really is what the movie is about, and its arguable that if we really knew the mind of Zodiac, rather than the fragments we see, we would see that his story, too, is one of obsession, but of a darker sort.
The director wisely lets the actors take center stage, both in small details (Ruffalo’s love of animal crackers gave me a craving for some!) and the larger, more important scenes. The movie is long, at 2 and a half hours, but I think that the length is necessary given that the events take place over years. We are not only continually updated on the timeline by cues on the bottom of the screen “three months later” or a given date, but we also, numerologically, get cues such as anniversaries and birthdays to show the passage of time.
Also, we get to see the limits of technology available at the time and how legwork and coordination with police forces was truly hit-and-miss at the time because of logistics. As a police procedural showing the (often) bumbling police who are handicapped by a lack of information, it hits that note very well, too.
I am thoroughly convinced that if Gyllenhaal had taken the place of Carrey in the Number 23, that would have been a much better movie. This is a movie about obsession and its ultimate fruits that, unlike that movie, works and works well. While this is Gyllenhaal’s movie, in the end the entire cast, from the main leads to the bit parts (played by stalwarts such as Brian Cox and Chloe Sevigny) do very well with their material.
I’m not sure why this movie didn’t do better at the box office. I liked the movie plenty fine, and I recommend it wholeheartedly if you like thrillers, police procedurals, or know about and are interested in the Zodiac story.