Zodiac (2007)


Dir. David Fincher
Premiered February 28, 2007

Growing up, choosing a favorite movie was always impossible. The idea of a single film holding such a close place in my heart seemed unimaginable. Then I saw Zodiac.

Granted, I didn’t see it at first. When the poster first showed up at my morning bus stop, a friend lamented that while a movie about the Zodiac killer would be cool, Jake Gyllenhaal’s involvement was a guarantee of lameness. To be clear, Gyllenhaal had done plenty of good work; he’d just been nominated for an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, but the guy just seemed kind of weedy.

I think I first saw the movie a year later, on DVD. I was about to move to San Francisco and my mom had ordered it on Netflix. I loved it, and after I moved, my enjoyment of the film only intensified. My issues with Gyllenhaal were completely allayed; not only does he do a great job, but it’s much more of an ensemble film. Frankly, it’s hard for me to talk about this movie because I have no idea where to start.

At the dark end of the 1960s, a mysterious serial killer known only as Zodiac begins terrorizing Northern California. His talent for coded messages attracts the attention of the local police (such as Dave Toschi, played by Mark Ruffalo), and captures the imagination of puzzle-obsessed cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose life is consumed by this mystery even as the rest of the world moves on.

One of the most notable things about this movie is its humor. That may sound strange, but it works for how the story is being told. Most of the cast consists of character actors best known for comedy, and in an era where movies generally were trying to be as gruesome and grim as possible, this was a huge break from the norm. That’s important here, because it makes the movie much more lifelike and real. And it’s not a cynical or nihilistic sense of humor; it’s entirely character-based. Mark Ruffalo’s interpretation of notorious oddball detective David Toschi particularly is one of the most quietly hilarious characters I’ve seen in film.

A huge amount of credit for Zodiac goes to its screenwriter, James Vanderbilt. In 2005, Vanderbilt’s script was touted as one of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, and rightly so, but it’s a surprising choice for how subtly unconventional it is. This movie has no three-act structure; that is reserved for the characters themselves, many of whom don’t appear for what would have been the first or third acts. For the most part, it’s very episodic. It goes down every blind alley, but it contributes so fully to the characters and mood that, although the film is almost three hours long, you never feel like your time is being wasted. The rhythm of the story, combined with the astonishing cinematography, editing, and soundtrack make every scene count, and succeeds incredibly at setting up suspense and intrigue. While I’m not a big fan of David Fincher, he brings a style that borrows from a multitude of classic thrillers and detective stories from the 1960s and 70s and makes it his own.

Looking back, Zodiac being my favorite movie was kind of inevitable. All of my top 5 favorite films were ones I first saw around a certain age, and while other movies from 2007 may be more highly regarded, none of them reach out and grab you like this one. Even after you finish, you can’t stop thinking about it, and every time I’ve sat down to watch it again, I notice some new detail that only increases my love for it.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
None. In cribbing the style of directors from the time period of the film (such as Don Siegel, early Wes Craven, and especially Alan J. Pakula), the film manages to be retro and ahead of its time. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that its visuals were a major influence on Mad Men.

Additional Notes
The montage of Zodiac’s letters taking dubious credit for a new string of crimes, the text interspersed with footage of the police and newsroom in three dimensions, is a very striking and novel (?) use of visual effect and editing.

This film does have one flaw. In the beginning of the film, Robert drops his son off at school in what is supposed to be early August.

How Did It Do?
Grossing $84.8 million against a $65 million budget, Zodiac was a mild disappointment. It failed to beat Wild Hogs for weekend box office, and advertising was quickly dropped as a result.

The timing of Zodiac’s release suggests that it was originally made for a fall 2006 release, all the better to compete for the 79th Academy Awards, but the deck appeared stacked, and Paramount buried the film in March– not a terrible release date, but not a particularly flashy one either. Fincher blamed poor advertising for his film’s success, but insisted that it would eventually find an audience.

He was right. Critics were overwhelmingly positive, earning the film an 89% rating on RottenTomatoes. A notable holdout was New York Magazine’s David Edelstein, who felt the film was “too populist.” Edelstein, as we shall soon see, would prove my opposite regarding many, many films from 2007. In any case, the movie made a ton of year-end top-10 lists (which is saying something for this year), and many critics have gone back and done retro reviews of it. It’s just that beloved now.

Zodiac wasn’t the only critically lauded script written by James Vanderbilt in 2005. The film’s release quickly motivated Hollywood to begin development on Vanderbilt’s much more anticipated script Against All Enemies, a biopic of counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke. It has been in development for over a decade, and will probably never be made.

Next Time: Death at a Funeral


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