This is exactly the kind of film that I find myself arguing about over and over. I can already picture the endless debates I’ll have with friends who’ll insist that this is a masterpiece and won’t be happy with my feeling that it’s good but not great. That’s the silliest thing about it: it’s not even a true disagreement where one loves something and the other hates it. It’s an instance where most everyone agrees about the qualities and maybe even the flaws, but some feel that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Or not.
Let’s start with the positive. From the pre-credits opening sequence and then for a solid hour, “Zodiac” is indeed pretty damn great. That first murder totally nails it, quickly establishing a sense of dread and doing it in style. With undeniable visual mastery and perfect use of music (Donovan‘s Hurdy Gurdy Man, which is heard again at the end, creating an eerie echo), I got the feeling that this was indeed gonna be the “GoodFellas of psycho-killer thrillers”, as claims Boston Herald critic James Verniere. The other extended murder scene that occurs during the first act is stunning as well, the Zodiac’s all-dressed-in-black, ninja-Boogeyman figure piercing through the otherwise pleasant scenery of Lake Berryessa, where two lovers are about to see their romantic afternoon turn to hell. The other murder scene, which involves a yellow cab, is a quicky but a goody as well.
Meanwhile, the Zodiac keeps calling and sending letters (often including coded messages) to the police and to local newspapers, obviously craving attention. This is gripping stuff, like a real-life version of comic book villain The Riddler’s mindfucks with the cops (and Batman). Plus the guy makes disturbing claims, about how he’s “collecting slaves for the afterlife”, or how he plans to shoot a bus full of schoolchildren. We’re also gradually introduced to the vast cast of characters, who all try to discover who the mysterious Zodiac is and what his endgame is. Clues and possibilities abound, but little actual evidence is available and as soon as they think a pattern has been established, it’s suddenly broken.
Even early on, the film feels scattered, multiplying threads and throwing in countless details, jumping back and forth all over the place and cutting forward in time days, weeks or even months. But that works up to a point, because there’s tension mounting from how we don’t know when the next murder is gonna happen and all these mysterious messages and threats keep popping up. Unfortunately, halfway into it or so, the suspense starts to deflate. The murders suddenly stop (though there’s a further scary scene with my beloved Ione Skye), then the letters, and everyone find themselves grasping at straws. I’m sure all the false leads and procedural minutiae are true to life (much is made about how the screenplay is “based on actual case files”), but it’s not very dramatic.
Worse, none of the characters is more than a one-note type: Jake Gyllenhaal as the Boy Scout cartoonist, Robert Downey Jr. as the smart-ass reporter, Mark Ruffalo as the dedicated cop…. Thankfully, these actors are resourceful enough to get us somewhat involved with the goings-on – Downey Jr., especially, is allowed to add some welcomed touches of humor. But script-wise, there isn’t much to these guys. When the reporter hits the bottle and the cop becomes bitter and the cartoonist grows so obsessed with the Zodiac that he loses his family and his job, all these seem like random plot shifts, not like the natural progression of character arcs.
So there you have it: close, but no cigar. “Zodiac”, like every David Fincher picture, is exquisitely crafted, there are three or four kick-ass set pieces and the casting is remarkable (it also includes Brian Cox, ChloÃ« Sevigny, Elias Koteas and Philip Baker Hall, among many others). But even its biggest fans will have to admit it’s rather bloated at 158 minutes and that it’s ultimately a somewhat hollow experience. Or will they? Bring on the endless debates and silly arguments, heh.