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Zodiac: A Long Movie About a Long Case
Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr.

Review by Breanne Boland March 8, 2007 Issue

Based on a true-crime book, Zodiac tries to rise above its paperback pedigree by turning a murder mystery into a character-driven drama. It half succeeds — while it avoids being a thriller, its naturalistic inclinations instead rob this two-and-a-half hour film of the excitement a story like this should bring. The film follows police officers and newspaper reporters through the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, changing dates every two to three minutes in a race to inform the audience that… the killer was never found.

If the unsolved status of the Zodiac killer’s murders were truly an impediment to good drama, the case wouldn’t have inspired dozens of films and television shows. However, the risk of sticking to the facts is that the film has no real end. There were and are suspects. None of them could be charged with the murders because the evidence was all circumstantial; the conclusion of this film suffers the same fate. It’s a pity, because David Fincher, who directed Seven, Panic Room, and Fight Club, is a fine director who knows his way around suspense and violence and leads a fine cast. Unfortunately, the considerable skill behind and within this film can’t release it from the existing confines of the story.

Zodiac follows the exploits and letters of the Zodiac killer from the points of view of the San Francisco police department, represented here by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, and members of the San Francisco Chronicle staff, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. Each of them gives a fine performance — Ruffalo’s thwarted lust for justice represents the frustration of everyone responsible for keeping the public safe. Gyllenhaal is the earnest public, and Downey Jr. is the mercenary drug-taking, booze-swilling reporter who hopes to make a name for himself — and does — though not without consequences. He’s particularly charismatic, delivering the kind of performance that inspires the hope he stays away from his vices long enough to have the career he deserves.

Unfortunately, after 158 minutes of great acting, the film ends with a whimper. And a lot of numb butts in the audience. The years peel away, the parties involved retire or give up, and we’re left with an epilogue that amounts to a shrug.

Fincher tries diligently to keep people with him — his visual style is great for indicating frustration and subtle unease. But when 15 years have passed without a murder, the unease dissipates, leaving only impatience. The respect for the truth that sustains the film’s first half — the Zodiac’s letters, startling reproductions of the murders themselves — drowns the second half. Not even the enthusiasm and mania of Gyllenhaal’s character, based on the author of the books that inspired this film, can keep up the tempo.

Some complain that films are drowned by conventions, that good stories are stifled by changes made in the name of attracting audiences. One of those conventions is a satisfying or happy ending, which can spoil films better served by ambiguity. However, Zodiac, mired in the facts as it is, is not one of those films, and so instead its long, gradual winding down leaves a lingering dissatisfaction, rather than admiration for the realism the film obviously was striving for.

Bottom line: the murderer still has the last laugh.

Coming Attractions

March 9
300 - From the director of the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller (Sin City). Leonidas, king of Sparta, leads a group of 300 soldiers into a battle with the entire Persian army, which seeks to conquer Greece.

The Ultimate Gift - A weepy, life-affirming tale about a young man who reevaluates life after completing tasks left to him by his dead grandfather, played by James Garner. It also features Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine as a little girl with cancer.

March 16
I Think I Love My Wife - Chris Rock directs and stars in this film about a man married to a career woman who is tempted by a free-spirited younger woman. With Gina Torres, the woman beloved by Firefly and Serenity fans.

Premonition - Sandra Bullock is a woman whose husband dies one day and returns the next, leaving her racing to rearrange events so that his fatal car accident doesn’t occur. Her knowledge of what’s to come raises the suspicion of those around her.

Dead Silence - The guys who created the Saw movies created this film about a bunch of (wait for it) ventriloquist’s dummies come to life. For revenge. The trailer for this is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a theater in a while.

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