David Fincher's brave take on Robert Graysmith's book gets to grip with the obsessive complexity of the source, evoking its spirit through compelling analysis of the minutiae of the case. Those expecting a thrilling cat and mouse chase in the mold of Seven may be disappointed, but comparisons to Fincher's earlier classic are unfair. 'Zodiac' is as much about the mood of 1960s and 70s California as about the mystery itself, about the dying idealism of the principle characters and their belief in being able to solve the case. Like The Transamerica Pyramid, which we see in the process of construction, the Zodiac case goes to the heart of San Francisco's modern history. The architecture, clothing and technology of the period are much more than background in a film about police procedure. Progress is hampered by juristictional boundaries, lack of cooperation, and the absence of 'telefax'. Anthony Edward's stoic cop makes a succession of phone calls at one stage to various regional police departments to collect evidence, a lumbersome process reminding us of a world pre-internet and email. With is focus on procedure and character, Zodiac belongs to a tradition of films that could be said to have begun in the 1970s with Alan J Pakula's All the President's Men and The Parallax View, and continued more recently with Michael Mann's The Insider.
This could have been dull and plodding, but the director and cast manage to sustain interest and tension throughout. Very true to the facts - some would say constrained by them - the film tells the murders as they happened, refusing to sensationalise them. In some instances, this shows the killer to be quite clumsy and opportunist, not the dark genius that you might imagine. The film is not in awe of the killer's stealth, but shows how legal infrastructure and human failure conspired to prevent his capture. It is also a timely reminder how the oxygen of publicity both inspires murder and inhibits our ability to solve it.
Despite brilliant acting throughout, there are a couple of niggles in the characterisation that handicap this film slightly. Jake Gyllenhall's Robert Graysmith is not really relevant as a character until about half way through, and the film misses some fleshing out of his character to lend verisimility to his obsessive personality. We see his descent and near unravelling in the riddles of the case, but before we can be convinced of some inherant character trait that might explain his fixation. Likewise, Robert Downey Jnr - who is remarkably not irritating as the reporter Paul Avery - becomes fairly peripheral in this film. We are told of his extraordinary knowledge of the case, and we see his subsequent descent into alcaholism, but are we to assume the two are connected? His interest in the case is unclear - is it merely professional, or is it the root cause of his self-destruction? Some fleshing out here would have helped, despite the film already running into two and a half hours. The length has been criticised, but in my opinion the film stays engaging and tense until the end. Great stuff.