dir: David Fincher
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The director with one of the most variable records in Hollywood has returned to us mere plebs with a police procedural flick about the hunt for the Zodiac killer.

Fincher’s flicks have an almost odd-even quality, in that he has a good film follow a mediocre one with grim predictability. I don’t have to nuts and bolts it for you: suffice to say I really like half of his movies, and am indifferent to the other half, and they follow each other like night follows day, like hangover follows drinking binge.

I can’t really say if Zodiac breaks the cycle, because the formula would require that a good film follow his last mediocre one, being Panic Room. But I can’t say that it blew my socks off.

It’s just over two and a half hours long, which in itself is no crime. As long as it does something magical with that time, who would complain. It’s just that, for my money, it is two and a half hours of tedium with no pay off.

From a filmmaking point of view, it’s impressively put together. The acting is solid, the late 60s-70s look is perfectly maintained, and a whole bunch of detail is included to give the whole production an exquisitely tailored look. And the story, regarding the still-unsolved Californian murders, would make for a delightful trip down memory lane for the True Crime-inclined out there.

But for my money, having watched the long-arsed film twice just recently, it just doesn’t hang together.

Someone shoots two people at a lover’s lane in the town of Vallejo, back in 1969. Someone, possibly a different someone, writes letters and codes to the media taking credit for the shootings, and subsequent killings, taunting the authorities and giving them his chosen name with which to terrify the masses: Zodiac.

One of the newspapers receiving these missives, the San Francisco Chronicle, has rampant alcoholic Paul Avery covering the story and trying to unearth the identity of the killer (Robert Downey Jnr, playing a drunk for once). Meanwhile, a young and possibly retarded cartoonist called Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) at the same paper also takes an obsessive interest in the case.

With more killings, and more letters claiming these and greater crimes to follow, the cops involved pursue every dead end with grim determination, pausing only to ensure that their 70s moustaches and comb-forward hairstyles are still immaculately coiffured at any given time.

A subtitle at screen’s bottom updates us constantly as to when exactly the scenes we are watching are meant to be transpiring. From the beginning onwards the chronological jumps are sometimes mere hours, getting further apart as the film ambles, by the end encompassing the expanse of years. They are comically frequent. Then, aggravatingly frequent.

The cops, Inspectors Dave Toschi and William Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) search for the nutjob and examine every crackpot theory and lunatic fringe phone call and statement taking credit or blaming other people with as little connection to the events as you or I. As long as, of course, neither you nor I are the Zodiac killer.

All I can say on my part is that I’m unlikely to have been the Zodiac killer, since I had not yet graced this world with my presence through the process of being born when the killings began. You on the other hand: can you account for your whereabouts on the night of July 4, 1969?

The fact is, though the story and the book it is based on, written by Graysmith, point to a specific person as being the likely killer, the flick meanders around on each and every other red herring and goose chase that the flick can manage. I can see the purpose of that, to be sure, to be sure. It was a crazy era, and it had a major psychological impact on the country during an already tense time. And since the coppers never made an actual arrest, focusing on every kitchen sink at least honours the work all these various people did trying to track down the monster responsible. Clearly hinted is the fact that this pursuit ruined the lives of many of the pursuers.

But from a viewer’s point of view, as opposed to the student of true crime, it means the flick just rambles along long after it has lost any momentum. Tense scenes of Toschi yelling at Avery that he’s not going to help him, or people yelling at Graysmith that they’re not going to help him repeated ad nauseum doesn’t make up for the fact that the flick has nowhere to really go after the halfway point.

Past said halfway point, any tension derived from the sense that these people want to catch the Zodiac before he kills again dissipates as we see the amount of time that has elapsed, and how many dead ends have been reached, and how people are losing interest in it, including the viewer.

Which is when all the police procedural stuff is repeated again, except now the lead character is Graysmith, motoring along as he does to a suspect already found halfway through the film.

Ah, Gyllenhaal. I would bet a million bucks that Fincher told Gyllenhaal to rent a copy of All the President’s Men and to watch it a dozen times before showing up on set. The whole representation of the San Fran Chronicle and Gyllenhaal’s Carl Bernstein impression is deeply obviously lifted from the Watergate journo-thriller. Which isn’t a bad thing, because President’s Men is a top notch thriller fictionalising a true story that had a tremendous impact.

Zodiac is a mediocre fictionalisation of true events that has nowhere to go. Gyllenhaal’s representation of Graysmith could not possibly be accurate. If Graysmith has been this annoying, Zodiac would surely have killed him a long time ago. Considering the blithely heedless way in which Graysmith bumbles into what we are meant to see as a potentially lethal situation, it wouldn’t have been hard.

The facts of the case as replicated here are interesting. The characterisations, the various plot leapings-about and the final, dubious destination are not. Why the last half hour of the flick has to focus on some loser who we never get to see anyway (Rick Marshall? We hardly knew ye) is never explained, except to stretch an already painful film length out even longer. And, worst of all, with all the effort put in to nail one specific person down as Zodiac in the end, I remain more unconvinced that ever even at this late stage in the game that they got it right, which makes it even more pointless and aggravating in the end.

I can also do without the thousandth iteration of the obsessive guy who neglects his family in the pursuit of something or someone, being constantly nagged by his harridan wife (Chloe Sevigny). Even if it’s true in this case, since Graysmith and his wife at the time did divorce in 1980, it’s still the dullest of clichés.

I’m not sure about all of this. I’m usually a fan of just this kind of nasty material, and I’m not averse to the uncathartic, closure-less ending, but I never really felt engaged by this whole production, and I don’t feel like I have any greater understanding of the events or the people involved. Which is a cinematic sin, in my book.

5 times this Zodiac guy seemed too dumb to tie his own shoelaces, let alone be the prototypical Hannibal Lecter out of 10

“I am not the Zodiac. And if I were, I certainly wouldn't tell you.” – Zodiac.