A series of murders in the San Francisco during the 1960's is the basis for the movie Zodiac, the name that the killer gave himself. Robert Greysmith, the author of the book upon which James Vanderbilt's screenplay is based, is also the central figure in the tightly-scripted film, now available on DVD. Indeed, the killer"”if that's who he is"”appears only sporadically during the story's course, for this is more about the search for the killer, as opposed to the murders themselves.
That effort is carried on by two groups: the newspaper and the police. Specifically, two pairs of men come to be the focus. At first, we follow political cartoonist Greysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) as they try to track down the clues that "Zodiac"¯ tauntingly sends to the paper: details of crimes, encrypted messages, false leads. Greysmith, regarded as a "boy scout,"¯ a neophyte dwelling on the outside edge of the newsroom, commits more fully to finding the killer. A single father, he is keenly aware of the danger that perfectly innocent people face, whereas the more urbane Avery becomes gradually involved in finding "the angle"¯ for the story and winning the fame for writing it.
Two other men's efforts mirror and overlap the reporters': police inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) follow the chain of maddeningly inconclusive evidence but are unable to close the case. Their favorite suspect, one Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) eludes their grasp for years, the pursuit playing havoc with their personal lives and, at one point, jeopardizing Toschi's career. As time goes by, only Greysmith, his interest deepening into obsession, keeps up the chase, costing him his job and his marriage and estranging him from his children. He gives over his life to researching and writing the books which will ultimately prove the murderer's identity.
The ending of this film will likely frustrate many in the audience. Personally, I liked it, since it is both realistic and aesthetically satisfying. Director David Fincher, perhaps best-known for "Se7vn"¯ (whose structure the present film recalls) and "Fight Club"¯ (which also has an unconventional ending), gives us both futility and certainty at the film's close"”a neat trick. I'd also applaud Harris Savides' carefully lit cinematography, the film editing of Angus Wall, and David Shire's clever original score. And the recreation of 1960's and 70's San Francisco in Donald Graham Burt's careful production design is fascinating.
Zodiac is appropriately rated "R"¯ for some brutal violence, which is shown in the film's early going, and the realistically profane language of the newsmen and the police. It runs for over two and one-half hours, and it is more police procedural than thriller, so teens are not likely to be compelled by it. But adults who enjoy well-done plots and solid acting may like this one.