Mounting a movie that tackles the Zodiac serial killings case comes with a built-in problem: it’s still unsolved. The current film directed by Fight Club‘s David Fincher, therefore, ironically faces a similar situation faced by the makers of All the President’s Men. That movie was released in 1976, after Richard Nixon had resigned. Despite the fact that everybody knew how it turned out, screenwriter William Goldman took the considerable risk of fashioning it as a kind of detective story in which newspaper reporters replaced the traditional hard boiled private eye. The result was, arguably, the best movie of the best decade for American movies ever.
Zodiac is also fashioned as a detective story involving newspaper reporters, as well as cops. And despite the fact that it remains unsolved, the ending is still known to most people who will pay money to see it, i.e., that by the end they won’t know for sure who the killer really was. The screenwriters take a risk similar to Goldman’s, however, by fingering one particular suspect by the end of the movie. Unfortunately, this is done by combining evidence involving two separate suspects. The best advice I can give regarding Zodiac is to ignore it as a revelatory experience and instead enjoy it as one of the best-acted ensemble movies since, well, All the President’s Men.
Those expecting Zodiac to be Silence of the Lambs or, worse, Dirty Harry may be surprised, but shouldn’t be disappointed. Zodiac takes a serious, underplayed approach to the subject. At times it comes off like an exceptional episode of Law & Order, at other times like an exceptional episode of Lou Grant. Where Zodiac excels is in seamlessly combining elements of a newspaper movie, a police procedural, a character study and a serial killer movie. In fact, Zodiac is without question the best newspaper movie since All the President’s Men and points up my earlier contention that this genre is ripe for a comeback.
The acting in Zodiac is uniformly excellent with several standouts. The first is Mark Ruffalo is an Oscar-worthy performance as the police officer in charge of the Zodiac investigation. Ruffalo’s soft spoken delivery is used to absolute perfection. Physically he easily embodies a man whose job results in failure well over half the time, from his quick witted movements at crime scenes to his body language calculated to either intimidate a suspect or put him at ease. It’s hard to image five more performances this year being good enough to keep him out of the Oscar race next year.
Almost as good is Anthony Edwards as Ruffalo’s partner. I’ve never been a big Edwards fan, and he is almost unrecognizable here. His face has a flabby quality to showing the first real signs of aging, and his hair here is graying just enough to give him not only age, but gravity. Hard as it may be to believe, Edwards actually underplays more than Ruffalo. His character comes with emotional baggage over how the Zodiac investigation affects him and without saying a word you can see in his eyes the toll it is taking upon him. It’s not a flashy performance, it’s subtle, full of nuance and unspoken emotions.
The flashiest performance is turned in by Robert Downey, Jr. The thing about Downey, of course, is that he can go from good to bad even within the same movie. Here he plays a reporter battling several demons, especially alcohol. Downey plays him as a bit of smartass, but with the accent on smart. Paul Avery was a real life reporter who followed the Zodiac case and was the recipient of one of the killer’s threats. I have no idea whether Downey gives an accurate reflection of the real life Avery, but the character he does play here honestly seems to be someone who could have been a San Francisco reporter in the 60s and 70s.
A number of small roles give recognizable actors a chance to showcase their talents. Brian Cox-the original Hannibal Lecter-shines as real life celebrity attorney Melvin Belli. Roger Rabbit’s voice Charles Fleischer appears briefly but memorably as a guy even creepier than the Zodiac. Philip Baker Hall-so memorable as the library detective on a classic episode of Seinfeld-brings a world weary quality to a handwriting analysis that plays a tremendously important role in the plot. Dermot Mulroney, looking ten years older than normal, even manages to make his small part as a police captain worth noticing. Donal Logue shows he is capable of doing far more than comedy with a terrific dramatic turn as a small town cop.
And, of course, there is a reteaming of two men who starred in one of my favorite comedies of the decade, Bubble Boy. Jake Gyllenhaal is the nominal star of Zodiac and John Carroll Lynch plays a prime suspect. One of the great gags of Bubble Boy is that, despite being his father, Lynch doesn’t actually speak to Gyllenhaal until almost the end of the movie, delivering the punch line that we could all see coming. In Zodiac, these two actors don’t play a scene together until almost the very end, as well. As I have stated often on these pages, I consider Gyllenhaal to be one of the finest young actors around today. It is unfortunate that his is the least interesting character in the movie-literally a Boy Scout-but he uses his big eyes and baby face to convey just how thin the line really is from earnestness to obsession.
Lynch is a different matter entirely. At first he seems an unlikely candidate for the cold-blooded killer that the Zodiac was. He is big and beefy and seems like everybody’s favorite uncle. Lynch uses his non-threatening appearance to create a character that manages to become creepy while still being somewhat sympathetic. You will probably not find a better acted scene than the one in which Ruffalo and Edwards first interrogate Lynch. The level of calculation and gamesmanship that takes place during this short little sequence makes serves to remind one just how good movies can be when more attention to paid things like a script, acting and directing than special effects.