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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 29.55%
Average: 25%
Pretty Bad: 2.27%
Total Crap: 3.41%

8 reviews, 40 user ratings

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Zodiac (2007)
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by Erik Childress

"And You Thought Scorsese's Departed Prologue Was Long"
3 stars

David Fincher’s Zodiac begins by announcing itself as being based on actual case files. Then it spends the next two-and-a-half hours proving it. Police procedurals as a genre can take many routes and thanks to movies and especially the gluttony of television spinoffs we almost feel like honorary amateur detectives by now. A good crime novel can get the juices going. A non-fiction one can be even better, particularly those filed under the unsolved labels. Jack the Ripper naturally ranks atop the list, only to later be “solved” in a 1988 miniseries. James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia also provided a conclusion later to be turned into an over-the-top and near unwatchable tale of gumshoe obsession by Brian DePalma. Fincher’s similar visual panache is put on the backburner for Zodiac which is so devoid of any dramatic tension that he may as well have just plunked down the boxes of files in front of us hoping we can make something out of it.

Beginning in 1969 with the first Zodiac shooting of two teenagers at a lookout point, the San Francisco Chronicle received a cryptic note from the killer demanding front page exposure for the puzzle or he will strike again. After a reader cracks the code, the paper’s cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), discovers a connection to Richard Connell’s famous tale of manhunting, The Most Dangerous Game. Reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr., great as always) strikes up a partnership with the shy, single father (known as “retard” around the office) writing articles making less than flattering statements about the unknown culprit.

After a cab driver is slain within the city limits, Inspector David Tocchi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) follow-up with the letters being received at the Chronicle, now arriving with pieces of bloodied cloth from the cabbie’s clothes. One such letter comes directly to Avery himself providing a personal stake in the capture of this madman. His own leads begin connecting other murders to the Zodiac and the cooperation of three different police departments. Weeks, months and years go by with nary a suspect arrested and the killer taking long breaks in-between his terror. The investigation trails off, cops get transferred, Avery succumbs to his vices, but Graysmith has an idea for a book.

The above events form what amounts to basically a 105-minute prologue to where most writers would have begun to craft a Hollywood thriller. While I am on the frontline to side-stepping conventions, there are still requirements to creating effective drama and the longer Zodiac goes on, the clearer it becomes that those opportunities have passed. Why are films like All the President’s Men, The Paper and Shattered Glass so fascinating when they are basically about writers trying to write? Letters and numbers, perhaps recalling our ill-spent memories of school, by themselves just aren’t as interesting to others as they are to the people manipulating them into some form of whole. But those films worked because they were about people under pressure, clashing personalities and a desire to find the truth. Zodiac should have those elements on overtime, but its dealing with a timeline that allows them way too much time to exhale. This film may actually break the record for most time-and-location stamps on a quarter hour average.

Despite introducing recognizable actors in nearly every other scene (Brian Cox, Dermot Mulroney, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, Philip Baker Hall, James LeGros, Adam Goldberg and Clea Duvall among them), the focus are on the lead cop, the lead reporter and the lead least-likely-to-solve-the-mystery puzzle-lover. It’s easy to mistakenly make the connection that each one of them makes up a third of the story, with the other taking on a supporting role in the anthology. That’s only apparent during the final third when Graysmith becomes the focus. Until then, Downey’s Avery is the most interesting of the bunch and he gets the shortest shrift as little more than the comic relief. Something seems missing as he seeks out an ominous tipster and the malingering four-year chunk of nothing used to bridge the high point of the case to the despondency of everyone involved leaves Avery’s downfall as an afterthought. Earlier when he’s threatened and buys a gun, there’s an amusing payoff including Chronicle members wearing “I am not Avery” buttons to ward off a Zodiac attack, but where’s the paranoia? Where’s the beginning of the spiral? When did Avery stop caring?

Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt stick so closely to the facts that they miss the bigger picture if their intention was truly to do something other than a by-the-numbers police investigation. As a character study, it’s not the all-out failure that The Black Dahlia was, but there’s still a fundamental hole in the center of why this one case is cause for obsession. Avery is threatened, but that element is forgotten. Graysmith could be chasing down the greatest puzzle of his life like some boy scout John Nash, but other than him saying (twice) that he likes puzzles, its never front-and-center to the point we believe it fills a void in his life. And Ruffalo’s Toschi could just be the one cop who gives a damn about the few lives snuffed out in a city averaging hundreds, but its not like he’s met the families eye-to-eye or is even a representation of the themes Vanderbilt fails to recognize. He’s just a guy who talks softly and loves animal crackers.

The blame for that lies less with Fincher than it does with Vanderbilt, the unacclaimed screenwriter of such gems as Basic and Darkness Falls. Since there is no cinematic conclusion to the story of the Zodiac killer (as he was never caught), Vanderbilt needs to find something underlying to make up for all the other failings. As a procedural, we hear the words but not the music, lacking the emotional informational overload that Oliver Stone was able to play so well during JFK. As a thriller, there are three scenes directly involving the Zodiac that occur early on and one bit of tacked-on suspense towards the end with Graysmith investigating another shady lead that seems to fly in the face of the non-conventional storytelling they had committed to. (It’s also a poorly created sequence with Graysmith playing the part of a stupid slasher film character putting himself into further danger after clearly recognizing the initial peril.)

Since Tocchi is known to have become a celebrity in his own right as the inspiration for both San Francisco cops Frank Bullitt and Harry Callahan, the exploration of the hunter becoming more notorious than the hunted is one worthy of examination. The assumption that Tocchi may have even written a Zodiac letter to keep the investigation front-and-center is quickly brought up and disposed. One of the film’s best scenes is a special screening of Dirty Harry held for the SFPD and just as Fincher shows us the obvious parallel between Zodiac and that film’s villain, he then trusts us with our knowledge of the film and the Zodiac's threats by using only the audio to creepily typify entertainment’s “ripped from the headlines” mentality. Fincher & Vanderbilt may have been trying to pull off the same trick that Spike Lee did with Summer of Sam; focusing on those affected by the serial murderer, but there’s absolutely zero sense of fear from the big, bad city down to the smallest of neighborhoods. If none of them seems to care, why should these three men?

Fincher’s Seven had itself a lurid enough case to be well remembered even if the film was only so-so. But beyond the consistent mood of gloom he brought to it, the story was led by two incredibly potent characterizations and schools-of-thought into solving it. That’s why the finale remains one of the most chilling sequences ever committed to celluloid. John Doe was terrifying, but it was what he did to a character we understood that made his actions so appallingly sinister. I don’t know how much better Zodiac would have been if Fincher had started with Graysmith’s research for his book. He would reacquaint with the down-and-out colleague who hunted Zodiac and team up with the disgraced cop who couldn’t get the job done. Sounds pretty standard, don’t it? Then again, so is the scene with the wife tired of her husband’s fruitless obsessions.

Beginning with an old Paramount logo, Fincher’s everything old-is-new again homage to gritty 70s policework with phones taking the place of computers never achieves the levels it needs to make this a riveting counterpart. There’s no jolt to discoveries, no fascination in watching these people do their jobs and, worse, no sense of actual cynicism for either the undue failure of the system or those within it losing touch with the bigger picture. Assuming the case records are accurate, the Zodiac killer hoped that someday a good movie would be made about him. If Vanderbilt’s double epilogue is nothing more than a pipe dream and the Zodiac is still out there, perhaps the Chronicle should be awaiting another letter from him; a complaint after he sees this film.

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originally posted: 03/02/07 16:17:14
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User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell 2 long but chilling 4 stars
1/06/11 David A. Mostly a documentary, but it gets scary when the Wallace Penny character gets into it. 4 stars
12/31/10 Simon Interesting source material, nice directing doesnt save the bland writing/pace; forgettable 3 stars
10/16/10 montedelasánimas Scary, realistic, sometimes perversely fun. Don't miss it. 5 stars
7/24/10 bagwell5 One of the best movies of the last decade. Long running time but always fascinating. 5 stars
7/05/09 MP Bartley Repeat viewings reveal more and more. An American classic. 5 stars
1/09/09 Anonymous. i loved it! 5 stars
7/27/08 Al from Bangkok Great. Nearly documentary in presentation, only riveting. 5 stars
3/05/08 ladavies Way too long, and not that memorable for me. 3 stars
1/23/08 Double M Finally a proper (and different) Fincher thriller, welcome back! Great directing and acting 5 stars
10/24/07 Ivana Mann The best serial killer movie since "Silence of the Lambs."Totally creepy & spellbinding! 5 stars
10/15/07 fools♫gold everything believable, everything enjoyable, everything just right 5 stars
9/01/07 Indrid Cold Well crafted but utterly bland, like a reenactment on Unsolved Mysteries. 3 stars
8/19/07 The Man If youre expecting a sensationalized thriller you may be disappointed. But its great. 5 stars
8/08/07 Dan Rizzi Terrific! Every performance here is outstanding, particularly Robert Downey Jr. 5 stars
8/05/07 Charles Tatum A modern day classic, riveting 5 stars
7/31/07 Monday Morning About 45 mins. too long, and Jake is about 150% too obsessed w/ the case. 3 stars
7/27/07 action movie fan good start but drags too much and has no suspense-a bit of a letdown 3 stars
7/03/07 William Goss Engrossing investigative epic is daunting in the best possible way. 4 stars
6/19/07 Jessiika My ass got really sore while i was watching it. I liked how he stabbed those people though. 3 stars
6/07/07 Germaine SO long. SO boring. Absolutely no depth or suspense. Terrible! 1 stars
5/23/07 MP Bartley Detailed, yet thoroughly absorbing. Superb performances. 4 stars
5/20/07 adam egas straight pimpin, loved it so much, soo good 1 stars
3/30/07 tracey I actually fell asleep and woke up to the cleaning crew staring at me. BORING. 3 stars
3/29/07 Lee A exciting thriller, that will haunt you long after the closing credit. 5 stars
3/21/07 carniv4 Good movie, but this tru story is not that compelling. Already forgotten it, 3 stars
3/17/07 Greg Holds your attention from start to finish, Downey is amazing! 5 stars
3/17/07 Jason Fisher Enthralling, absorbing from start to finish; no small feat for a movie nearly 3 hours long! 5 stars
3/14/07 Spark It BLOWS!!!! 1 stars
3/11/07 Pascal Boring, too long, no suprise, not even moving... very desapointing... 2 stars
3/10/07 dmitry Fincher's best because it doesn't just wallow in the grotesque 5 stars
3/06/07 Ryan Too long, too many details one some portions and not enough of others. Ending sucks 2 stars
3/06/07 George Jung Best film of 2007 so far. 5 stars
3/06/07 Luisa First half very engaging, but ran way too long... 4 stars
3/06/07 Gerald Sherfy Read the book instead; good performances and attention to detail but long in the tooth 3 stars
3/05/07 Edler Too long, no red-herrings, more like a documentary. But good to watch. 4 stars
3/04/07 Ole Man Bourbon Entertaining throughout its long run-time. Easy to recommend despite some reviews. 4 stars
3/04/07 E. N. Meticulously constructed; superlative filmmaking; a compelling and riveting film 5 stars
3/04/07 Shobert The longest episode of "Law & Order" I have ever seen. 3 stars
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  02-Mar-2007 (R)
  DVD: 24-Jul-2007

  18-May-2007 (15)
  DVD: 24-Sep-2007

  17-May-2007 (MA)

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