More signs than the Zodiac
Once in a blue moon a movie comes along which grabs your attention to the extent that you stop everything else that you're doing and become transfixed, unaware of anything else except what is happening on the screen. One such movie is David Fincher's "Zodiac" which retells the true story of the Zodiac killer who caused major paranoia in the bay area of San Francisco during the 60s and 70s.
As a murderer, calling himself Zodiac, starts sending cryptic messages to the police and newspapers in and around San Francisco, Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr. - Only You) becomes obsessed with the case which frustrates the investigating officers David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo - Rumor Has It...) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards - Top Gun), as well as causing wide scale paranoia in the Bay area. Years later, and without anyone solving the riddle of the Zodiac killer, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal - Brokeback Mountain) is still following up leads as he believes he is closing in on the killer.
For me I had read the hype over "Zodiac" but as is often the case was not expecting it to live up to all it's acclaim, thankfully it did and in some ways surpassed it. Part of the reason why "Zodiac" bit me in the ass and made me pay attention is that it is not like your usual serial killer movies. Yes a big part of the movie is solving the mystery as to who the killer is as well as the unravelling of the clues, and the depth the story goes into as to how and why is truly fascinating. But what is more prominent for me is the way the movie also shows the effect it had on the lives of those who became so obsessed with the case. I would say at times "Zodiac" comes across more as a character examination rather than a thriller, which will no doubt disappoint some audiences who are looking for a "Columbo"/ "Diagnosis Murder" style thriller, as this is as far away from it as you can get.
Part of the reason why I feel "Zodiac" works so well is that it is closely based on the book written by the Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith as he did his own investigations. In being so closely linked everything about it seems more realistic than other movies in the same genre. Not once did I feel that a scene had been overly glamorised just to please the audience, although no doubt some of it was. This maybe another reason why some audiences fail to gain the same pleasure from this movie as me, as in being so true to Graysmith's book the movie is very detailed and at times can feel slow.
With a movie which is all about the characters, mainly those of reporter Avery, detective Toschi and cartoonist Graysmith, "Zodiac" needed some very good actors to fill these parts and it really did not disappoint. For me the best performance came from Robert Downey Jr. who truly became the character of Paul Avery. I personally feel Downey is a hugely underrated actor, maybe down to his personal problems, but in "Zodiac" he shows what he really can do with a decent part. The transition which Avery undergoes from quite a cocky reporter to a physical, alcohol addicted wreck is shockingly realistic, and by the end of the movie you get a real sense that his involvement in the case really destroyed him.
Also making a better than expected performance is Mark Ruffalo as Inspector David Toschi, who started of like a caricature of Peter Falk's famous character "Columbo", thankfully this was short lived as if it had gone on it would have most definitely spoilt the movie. Prior to "Zodiac" I had only seen Ruffalo in fluffy roles, mainly as the love interest in romantic comedies, but he demonstrates here that he is more than capable of handling more serious roles. To be honest when "Zodiac" started I didn't even realise it was Ruffalo in this role, which is not just down to some good make up and costumes, but to his performance. Like Downey he really gets into the character and you never get a sense that it was just an actor going through the motions.
Making up the threesome and what you would class the lead role is Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith. At times I did feel the part was a bit too big for him as the majority of the scenes understandably revolve around him, but for the most he did a really good job. Most of the time where I felt he struggled in the role was early on, but by the end of "Zodiac" I felt he had really grown into the character and it was later on that Gyllenhaal was rivalling Downey for being the best actor.
Whilst Downey, Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal were undoubtedly the main stars of "Zodiac", the supporting cast were by no means inferior. For me special mention should go to Anthony Edwards as Inspector William Armstrong, who although is not a central character puts in a performance which is on par with Messrs Downey, Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal. In fact like with Ruffalo, I didn't even realise it was Edwards in the role until there was a scene where he was the central focus and I recognised his voice. Edwards is by no means the only other good actor in "Zodiac", and the likes of Dermot Mulroney, Chlo├ź Sevigny as well as Brian Cox all put in first rate performances in their respective roles. It is partly down to the choice of cast as to why I think "Zodiac" works so well, as none of them seem to steal the show from anyone else.
One of the noticeable things that "Zodiac" has is atmosphere and it is no surprise when you realise that the director is David Fincher, a man who previously directed films such as "Se7en", "Panic Room" and "The Game". Fincher manages to not only take us back to the 60s and 70s but also create an atmosphere of suspense. At times he may drag things out slightly too long for my own liking, but for the most he hits the nail on the head. Personally I liked the way he worked the characters rather than the action and for me was the reason why "Zodiac" was so compelling. Where I do feel he may have alienated some audiences is to have not put in the level of suspense where something like a phone ringing in a silent room will make you jump, but then I didn't mind this and personally feel it would have changed the feel of the whole film if he had gone down this route.
What this all boils down to is that if you are looking for an overly tense, slick, thriller with a fair bit of action, a few suspenseful frights then you are more than likely going to be disappointed by "Zodiac". On the other hand if you want a thriller which is a bit different from the commercial norm, which isn't afraid to dwell on the characters rather than move along at a rate of knots then there is a very good chance you will enjoy "Zodiac". For me the combination of realism, plot and performance made me sit up and pay attention and despite being a rather impressive 158 minutes long it gripped so much I didn't notice the time.