Newton’s third law of motion tells us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This certainly applies to the physics of Hollywood releases: As the studios increasingly turn to bombastic, over-the-top SFX movies, the critics react by praising every studio release that still has real acting and a script.
Still, a knee-jerk reaction is no good way to judge a film. Take David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” a realist look at the hunt for a notorious serial killer in late-1960′s/early-70′s San Francisco, which received widespread acclaim from the critics despite being about as exciting as watching paint dry. Serial killer films have been on the downhill ever since “Silence of the Lambs” in 1991, and we’ve seen the ridiculous (“Hannibal”) and the disgusting (“Saw”), but it takes a truly special talent to make a serial killer flick boring.
That, dear reader, is what Fincher — a director who’s made such nondull films as “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” and “Panic Room” — sets out to do here. He crams three murder scenes into the opening 20 minutes to make you scared as hell, then he spends the next two hours going absolutely nowhere, which seems to be the film’s point.
Critic after critic has described “Zodiac” as a “police procedural,” which means you get a lot of guys hanging around offices speaking jargon as opposed to anything actually happening. Far be it from this critic to dismiss the joys of dialogue, but “Zodiac” is an exercise in frustration, a criminal coitus interruptus that treats us to a lengthy investigation and no resolution, with precious little suspense along the way.
“Zodiac” begins with a bang on July 4, 1969, in Vallejo, California, as fireworks explode in the sky and a young couple parked on a lover’s lane are brutally shot up at point blank range by a mysterious stalker. (To the strains of Donovan’s “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man.”) The incident takes a bizarre turn when a letter arrives at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle from the killer. He threatens to go on a rampage if the newspaper doesn’t print his letter, which contains a page written in strange symbols.
Reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a beatnik covering the crime beat, is assigned the story, but cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall) is intrigued by the cypher and soon cracks it. The writing reveals a deranged mind: “I like killing because it’s so much fun. I will be reborn in paradise and all I kill will be my slaves.”
This is creepy stuff, all the more so since it’s based entirely on what really happened, using Graysmith’s two books — “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked” — as the basis of its script. It gets even creepier with the brutal murder of a couple by a lakeside in Napa Valley, and the shooting of a cabby in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights.
The city is put under curfew, and homicide detectives David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) take up the case. Tension builds as the killer, now calling himself “Zodiac,” mocks the police in his letters and sends them pieces of bloodstained clothing.
The film meticulously follows the scant trail of evidence and leads that the cops and newspapermen sift through. Everything points to one suspect, who Toschi and Armstrong decide to interview. It’s the movie’s out-of-the-ballpark scene, as the suspect (played with shifty menace by John Carrol Lynch) starts off seeming like the wrong guy, only, bit by bit, to start cracking. “This isn’t about the bloody knives in my trunk, is it?” he asks, and the detectives’ eyes suddenly narrow. It’s a deliciously tense moment, a good climax for any film.
Unfortunately, “Zodiac” goes on for another hour. The suspect is cleared, and one by one, his pursuers crack: Avery becomes a drunk and quits The Chronicle, Armstrong retires from the force, and Toschi is demoted and re-assigned. That leaves only Graysmith alone on his quest, and he gets tantalizingly close to an answer, while wrecking his marriage due to his obsession with the case. Unfortunately, this means all the interesting characters are gone, and we’re left with Gyllenhall, whose performance here as the meek cartoonist is shallow and undeveloped, the weakest of his career.
So we arrive at the end of the movie with the killer getting off unpunished and his pursuers either ruined or lost in frustration. It’s interesting to compare “Zodiac” to 1971′s “Dirty Harry”; Clint Eastwood’s cop in that film was modeled on Toschi, while the film’s villain, a sniper named Scorpio, was clearly taken from the Zodiac. That film offered a form of rough justice (“Go ahead, make my day.”) that infuriated liberals but obviously appealed to a public sick of wack-jobs like Zodiac and the Manson family and their incomprehensible murders. While obviously a piece of wish-fulfillment, “Dirty Harry” was at least in touch with the zeitgeist.
“Zodiac” is in touch with what, who knows? David Fincher’s penchant for obsessives? The critical/art-film trend to counter Hollywood action with stasis? The notion that there are no happy endings in real life? All of the above, maybe, but a better film would make us care.