If you are not familiar with the “Zodiac” killings that took place in Northern California at the tail end of the 1960s this review will include spoilers for the film.

Rating 3½

Directed by David Fincher

Written by James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Chloë Sevigny, John Carroll Lynch and Clea DuVall

The self-styled ‘Zodiac Killer’ is one of most notorious of all unidentified serial killers, perhaps second only to Jack the Ripper, who terrorised parts of East London in the late Victorian era, more than a hundred years ago. Zodiac killed five people and seriously injured two others during a period between 20 December 1968 and 11 October 1969. He wasn’t particularly prolific and he did not sexually brutalise or torture his victims, but he played mind games with the media and police and the very fact that he has always managed to evade detection has added to the aura of mystery that surrounds the case.

David Fincher’s film follows the investigation over a period of fourteen years, witnessed through the eyes of Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist working for the San Francisco Chronicle, Paul Avery, the Chronicle’s head investigative reporter, who famously received a Halloween card from Zodiac that is widely believed to have been a veiled death threat, and David Toschi, the San Francisco police detective assigned to the case. The film is based on two books written by Robert Graysmith about the killings. Although some of his theories and findings are controversial, he was “there”, so to speak, and is considered to be an expert on the available evidence.

As the film begins, the capture of the so-called Zodiac serial killer becomes a priority for the San Francisco police when he mails clues to his identity to a number of newspapers. These include the San Francisco Chronicle, whose investigative reporter, the flamboyant Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr), becomes a target of the killer for further pieces of coded correspondence. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist newly arrived at the newspaper, becomes obsessed with solving the case, eventually at the expense of his job and his marriage, even after Avery has long since succumbed to the effects of his chain-smoking and alcoholism. David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the police detective assigned the case, is initially borderline antagonistic towards both Avery and Graysmith, as he struggles to investigate more than 2,500 possible suspects, but later on he begins to secretly feed off-the-record tips to aid Graysmith’s unofficial investigation.

When David Fincher made ‘Se7en’ in 1995 it established a template for virtually all subsequent serial-killer crime thrillers, to the point of cliché now. Returning to the subject again twelve years later, he has made a film that is very different. One reference point would be ‘Dirty Harry’, the 1971 Don Siegel film inspired by the Zodiac killings. Perhaps just as noteworthy is the comparison (visual, as much as anything) to ‘All The President’s Men’, the 1976 film that told the story of the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who blew the lid off Watergate, the greatest political scandal in recent American history. ‘Zodiac’ not only has the look of 1970s American films, but also draws on them for inspiration elsewhere.

Because of the quirky characterisation of the three lead characters (Graysmith and Avery in particular) there are moments when it almost seems as if the film is about to drift into Coen Brothers territory. The acting is excellent, as might be expected. I think Robert Downey Jr is an electrifying actor and although his role is ultimately relatively small here he is in outstanding form. It is interesting to watch Mark Ruffalo’s performance as David Toschi, knowing that both Steve McQueen, in ‘Bullitt’, and Clint Eastwood, in ‘Dirty Harry’, based their characters on the real Toschi, who acted as an advisor to the producers during the making of ‘Zodiac’. Ruffalo’s take on the character bears little if any relation to Harry Callahan.

There are several cameo performances. One of these is by Clea DuVall, who is an actress I like very much. I wasn’t aware of her involvement prior to watching the film, so her brief appearance was a nice added bonus.

This is a strange film in many ways. Because the story unfolds over a long timeframe, with main characters drifting in and out, it never quite establishes a specific pattern. This is, I think, very deliberate. A less skilled director might have made a hash of it, leaving an unholy mess of a film behind, but David Fincher already has a very impressive track record. Some critics have suggested the film is slightly overlong. I don’t think so. It does meander a bit, but this is a story about a murder investigation that consumed the lives of those involved. There is nothing neat and tidy here.

It possibly has too much of a retro-feel, almost becoming a kind of homage to 1970s American filmmaking and detective TV shows, to be a genuine classic. Having said that, it is a very good film at a time when great films are a scarcity and, based on this one viewing, I thoroughly recommend it.

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