"The Social Network's" David Fincher is as plugged into our technological times as any director working today.
Who else could turn the dawn of Facebook into a crackling drama worth a second and third look?
But with the 2007 film "Zodiac," based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Robert Graysmith, Fincher dials down the technology to tell the kind of murder mystery too often ignored by today's storytellers.
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Fincher's trio of tonally disparate leads transform a potentially leaden narrative into one of 2007's finest efforts. What a shame the film's box office haul
didn't measure up to its excellence.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Graysmith, the boyish editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle circa 1969. Graysmith's job is to deliver cutting-edge satire, but he allows himself to get sucked into the case of a serial killer with a serious need for attention.
The self-proclaimed Zodiac killer is on the loose in San Francisco, and the Chronicle's crack crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is on the case. But this killer proves to be as mysterious as he is lethal, and neither Avery nor the cops assigned to bring him to justice (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) can get their man.
"Zodiac" stretches from the Woodstock era to the dawn of the Reagan revolution, methodically ticking away the important breaks in the case. Fincher's story is nothing if not methodical. Dates flash on the screen to remind us of the timeline, and the just the facts, ma'am screenplay hardly has time to provide unnecessary character build-ups.
All the while, the killer gives clues to his intentions to the baffled press corps. Even famed attorney Melvin Belli (given a pompous airing by Brian Cox) gets enmeshed in the mystery.
One reason "Zodiac" surpasses most whodunnits is the intensity of the crimes in question. Fincher's camera is unflinching as it records the shootings and stabbings that made headlines across the West Coast. Who could blame Bay-area residents for being afraid to leave their homes?
The film also captures a moment in time when the local newspaper provided both solace and support for a community. Avery is as much a key figure here as the cops working the beat, and it's not shocking that a cartoonist would play such a big role in the investigation.
"Zodiac" isn't interested in sensational cop tactics or detectives drowning their sorrows at the local watering hole. Avery's alcohol problems are documented but not obsessed upon, and the workaday atmosphere surrounding Ruffalo's character makes his role all the more intriguing.
Graysmith's decision to focus on the unsolved murders rather than his young family isn't explored fully enough here. It's as if the cast became as obsessed with finding the Zodiac killer as those real-life counterparts. Gyllenhaal's eyes grow blank as he pores over the minute aspects of the case, but the young actor cannot fully convey the sense of clarity he finds in doing his own detective work on the side.
"Zodiac" is long but never tedious, deliberate but rarely distracting. It's precisely how to recreate an impossibly complex case with more than a few loose ends still remaining.