Zodiac

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            In 1969 the Zodiac serial killer found his first victims. A young couple listening to music in their car in a dark park became the headline that planted the first seed of fear in the San Francisco area. The killer called the police to report his own crime. Then he found another couple lying on a blanket by a lake on a beautiful day.

            By the time the Zodiac had killed ten people, fear had morphed into panic that spread through the entire Bay area. The violence of the story takes place in the first few minutes of the film, allowing us to breathe again as we realize the filmmakers will settle into the details of a suspenseful hunt that will last for decades. Police and the press flounder in frustration at the moves of a man who claims to be smarter than they are – and is.

            A hunter of people, not animals, the Zodiac hunts purely for the joy of the kill. Reveling in the publicity he generates, he taunts the San Francisco Chronicle with cryptographic messages, letters, threats, and phone calls. As the years pass a dedicated but shrinking group stays on the case.

            First and last is Bob Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a shy young cartoonist in the Chronicle newsroom. He becomes fascinated, outraged, then obsessed with the search; he is front and center in a moment of suspense toward the end that strikes fear into the audience and plunges the theater into an unearthly silence. Police Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) closes his mind and the case after a few years, leaving Graysmith and fellow journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) as the surviving searchers. Avery is a dissolute fellow, both smart and jaded, who is surrendering slowing to his addictions.

            These three, along with a large and sometimes confusing cast of characters, are uniformly good and wise in their restraint given the extremes that might tempt them. The subject matter is tabloid  stuff and never once does director David Fincher let the movie go there. In a small but meaty role, Phillip Baker Hall creates a marvelous handwriting expert, reminding us that America is peppered with sub cultures filled with passionate people. The actors don’t play to the balcony. Instead, they risk slowing the movie down by recreating the exacting toil of journalists and police who must deal only with hard evidence rather than with circumstance or guesswork.

            Robert Graysmith, apparently in frustration at not being able to solve the case, wrote the book from which the movie is adapted. Jake Gyllenhaal is entirely credible in portraying Graysmith’s frustration right up to and including the moment when he stares into the eyes of the man he thinks is the killer. For those of you who hate violent movies, remember that the graphics of it are compressed into the early scenes. The rest of it is a finely acted tale of committed people searching for resolution.
 


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