David Fincher's latest $85 Million movie on the true story of San Francisco "Zodiac" killer, will not be commercially successfully, most people will not like it and will probably be termed as a very long (its 2:40 hrs) boring movie. But Zodiac is an excellent movie and is also David Fincher's best movie so far. The performance of every actor, crew, technician is top of the rack. This is a movie about a real-life serial killer, who was never caught, the cases surrounding him were never solved, and the SFPD finally deactivated the case in 2002. So there is no cinematic ending to this movie. You know going in that it has no payload, no satisfaction of seeing someone tie all the loose ends up, explain why/how it happened and send you on your way to the parking lot with a contented smile. None of the lead character's lives are ever in danger and there is no suspense at all for most of the movie. It is still magically engaging. I was riveted to the screen and absorbing terabytes of information that was thrown at me. I can't recollect a movie that has thrown so much information at me. William Hayt's book on Electro Magnetic Theory came close :-). Very much like Seven, this is a classic textbook cop-serial killer investigative story that goes in a level further. It has gory murder, planted clues, decoding of clues and all that. But it also has the element of "can it be proven in court". So it involves methodical data collection, patient examination of evidence and its usefulness.
The movie is based on Robert Graysmith's novel. He is also the central character of the movie. When you see him getting anonymous phone calls in the night with heavy breathing (a symbolic precursor before the Zodiac killed) you understand what he must really gone through. This movie involves 3 main characters. Two cops who investigate the crime and Robert, a cartoonist (Robert) at the San Francisco Chronicle. There are several other important characters and several independent threads. What is so great about the movie is that it pieces them together as a single coherent screenplay. The characters and their theories are incredibly complex, but there is no confusion in the way they are presented to the viewers. I was amazed at the choice of words and images that Fincher uses - to not loose the audience. We are kept informed clearly of what going on. It is as if we are part of story. We see the frustration of Inspector Toschi, Armstorng and Graysmith as the case wears on for years and years. We see them struggle to get a warrant for arresting a suspect. We are shown how hard it is for police departments (without fax machines) to exchange documents, evidence and co-operate with each other. Sometimes handwriting experts give a negative report, when everything else about the suspect seems to be obvious - which means no warrant and no arrest. It is a movie the depicts real life as real as possible. We are shown how the central characters deal with all this as it consumes their mind and their entire lives.
The story starts with the Zodiac shooting a couple at point blank range. He then courteously informs the police of such an act and then proceeds to commit another cold-blooded murder. This time Zodiac stabs the couple with a knife. The camera does not move away or blink when the stabbing happens. You are shown the stabbing in close-up. But that is the last of the gore. The fun begins when Zodiac starts sending letters to three important newspapers in San Francisco. He talks about his victims being his after-life slaves and talks about his penchant for collecting more slaves. He sends in coded clues, and other information about his killings. Sometimes he states the truth and sometimes he takes credit for other murders. He breaks his pattern of killing rural folks by moving to SFO and killing someone in the city. That brings SFPD inspectors Toschi (Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry was modelled on this popular real-life cop Toschi) and Armstrong into the picture. While Paul Avery (a smoker, drinker, drug-addicted degenerate appropriately played by Downey Jr) is the San Francisco reporter responsible for covering Zodiac, a cartoonist working for the paper called Robert Graysmith gets interested in the case. Robert is a boy scout, a geek, who doesn't drink/smoke - almost hippy'ish - but not really. While nobody takes Robert seriously at beginning, his nerdy obsession, persistence, and code-breaking skills get the attention of Inspector Toschi. Long after the case has become dormant, Robert still maniacally persists with the clues and his theories and is occasionally helped by Toschi. Robert's obsession is almost inhuman. He is writing a book on the Zodiac killer and he wants to solve the case. he wants to see the man's face and know that he is the Zodiac. The is no real reason given as to why Robert, the eventual author of the novel, is so interested in this killer. But the obsession seems to have cost him his second marriage. The obsession is addictive and consumes every inch of his life (and inspector Toschi's).
David Fincher keeps this movie straight and doesn't pull his super-famous technical stunts on us. There are no multiple cuts and unique camera angles. Its all straight. The rock'ish pop'ish background music was very interesting. The movie is the first Hollywood movie to be made in uncompressed digital format (VIPER). Frequently, an X-files like clock at the bottom tells us the date, or time elapsed since last event. This movie is a period movie that spans years and for most of the time there is no activity. But Fincher still builds up tension, some close calls for Robert and a nervous energy for this movie. This is a very disciplined movie, that systematically collects data like an accountant. Its really a documentary movie, where commercial cinema meets art in art's side of the world. Although, there are a couple of people shown to be prime suspects (each tries to be more obvious than the other) this movie never takes sides or hints at the eventual killer. Its a clear and analytical presentation of assimilated facts. And Fincher decides unambiguously on which of the zillion facts deserves screen time. The San Francisco of 70s is recreated magically. the color, the texture, clothes, all are remarkably done. In the second half you realize that the movie feels really long and drags on without purpose. I enjoyed it nevertheless. There is almost no point to making this movie. Much better serial killer movies have been made. But none like this one. This one has no twists, no action. I think in this category of movies (which documents a real-life killer story) this is the best. People who want a clean suspense thriller will not like it. Think of it as Manirathnam's Iruvar. Strictly for Fincher fans and movie buffs.