Zodiac has an undeniable leg-up on the rest of David Fincher’s filmography in that one of its primary themes – obsession – is mimicked brilliantly by the director’s perfectionist style. The true crime subject matter (chronicling the Zodiac Killer’s murdering streak of terror in the 70’s and the lives of three of the men who tried unmasking him) fits Fincher like a glove. There’s an obsession with detail from Fincher that rivals the relentless sleuthing of the protagonist Robert Graysmith. Zodiac is a serial killer film that spends very little time focused on the killer (a stroke of genius from writer James Vanderbilt).
This is the police procedural to end all police procedurals. All of the stylized violence comes within the first half hour, followed by two hours of listening to people talk, and Fincher makes it simultaneously captivating and exhausting. Every minute of the run time is felt, and yet it is paced perfectly. The characters’ obsessions become mirrored by our own thirst for the next clue, the next scene, the next moment. Fincher’s directorial control and skill is on full display – Zodiac has an ominous, foreboding, and downright creepy atmosphere that builds so effectively that even a shot as simple as two men standing in a kitchen sent shivers down my spine. It is a perpetual, effective, brilliant slow burner that never truly ignites. This is a compliment.
The man is undoubtedly a visual stylist, even the most banal moments of Zodiac are a treat to look at. From an opening 4th of July suburban dolly shot to an abandoned newsroom, it is a subtle thrill ride of details. Time jumps forward unexpectedly. Months and years pass with a single fade to black and a music cue, and the central characters remain fixated on the Zodiac killer. The leading trio of performances here are pitch perfect (and they should be, at 50+ takes per shot), with Mark Ruffalo, as always, subtly turning out to be the strongest of the bunch. They wear their burning obsession and deepening exhaustion, the latter of which likely not entirely acting, perpetually on their faces.
At one point, Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) and Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) are seated at a courtyard bench discussing potential new breaks in the case. It isn’t until the conversation is nearly finished that Toschi remarks on how cute Graysmith’s toddler is. Another image brilliantly captures Graysmith in his living room, surrounded and trapped by research materials, as his wife looks on. Zodiac mercilessly examines the costs of obsession. It would be difficult to call this my favorite David Fincher movie, but it is likely his best.