Paramount Home Video
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Documentaries, Featurettes, Trailer
In the annals of criminal investigation, few contemporary serial killers have provoked as much public terror and fascination as the Zodiac killer. Second only to Jack the Ripper as the most mysterious unsolved serial murder case, the Zodiac is known to have murdered five people in California between 1968 and 1969, though he was connected to a slew of other crimes that have yet to be substantiated. More than 2,000 suspects were interrogated by California police throughout the past four decades, but to this day the killer's identity remains a baffling mystery, allowing numerous legends and rumors to confound the facts.
Partly responsible for fueling the ongoing fascination of this case is Robert Graysmith, a former cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle whose two books, "Zodiac" and "Zodiac Unmasked," provided in-depth insight into the case as well as some questionable conclusions of their own. Graysmith worked for the Chronicle in the late 1960s when the self-named Zodiac killer began sending ominous letters to the paper describing his murders and creating bizarrely coded messages, some of which have never been completely deciphered. The two books by Graysmith served as the source material for James Vanderbilt's screenplay for "Zodiac," which follows the author through his increasing obsession with the case and his determination to uncover the killer's identity.
As played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film, Graysmith is a boyish, somewhat goofy young man whose initial involvement in the Zodiac case comes about when he helps to decipher the first letter sent to the editor of the Chronicle. A greenhorn among the ambitious staff, he nevertheless catches the attention of hotshot reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) with his skills at solving puzzles. Avery and Graysmith begin meeting to discuss details of the case and exchange information, with Graysmith putting in much of the effort by researching the clues that Zodiac leaves in his letters and at the crime scenes. With the killer demanding that his letters be printed in all of the major newspapers, public awareness leads to mass hysteria as countless accusations and theories pour in. The father of a young boy, Graysmith grows increasingly paranoid as the killer's targets extend to the local school children, who he threatens to attack on school busses.
A third party joins the manhunt in the person of Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a San Francisco detective assigned to track the Zodiac. Working closely with Avery and discreetly with Graysmith, Toschi gets a lead on a suspect who comes closer to being a match than any previous leads, but finding anything beyond only circumstantial evidence proves futile. As years pass and the case drags on with little activity from the killer and waning public interest, only Graysmith keeps it going with his own amateur investigation, a quest that slowly eats away at his personal life as his wife (Chloë Sevigny) is driven further away. It is this driving force to uncover the truth at any cost that becomes the core theme of the film. Although Graysmith most likely never comes within 50 feet of the Zodiac (though one of the last scenes suggests that he possibly does), he is no less a victim, losing his very being to the irresistible allure of a serial killer's mystique.
"Zodiac" was directed by David Fincher, and it certainly bears the mark of his distinct visual style. However, with this film he detours from the graphic violence and depravity of "Se7en" and "Fight Club" to a more psychological realm of terror. Following the actual case files, the film begins as more of a police-procedural drama. While three of the Zodiac's murders are depicted onscreen with a fair amount of explicitness, they all occur early in the movie and quickly make way for the more drawn-out tension in the newsroom. Fincher evokes the suspense and dramatic build-up of "All the President's Men" (1976) as his three protagonists uncover more and more information. The brilliance of Vanderbilt's screenplay is in the way it engrosses viewers not through action but through heavy dialogue, new revelations, and the anticipation of some impending dread, even though anyone familiar with the case knows that no resolution will be offered.
What takes the movie beyond the level of the typical police procedural is the obsession of the Graysmith character. As the film progresses, his paranoia takes over the narrative and speaks to the heart of the Zodiac's enduring public appeal. There has been much debate over a late scene in which, upon pursuing a piece of evidence, Graysmith ends up in the dim basement of a particularly shady character. Some have charged that the scene cheaply resorts to typical horror-film conventions and is out of step with the rest of the film. Indeed, it is unlike anything else in the film, but it comes at precisely the right time to convey the paranoid mindset of the character, who at this point has gone from being the observer to the observed, having made himself vulnerable by appearing on TV and making his investigation known to the public. He has made the incredible leap from invisible cartoonist to the subject of the very case he has been captivated by. With his youthful features and ingratiating performance, Gyllenhaal effectively captures not just the essence of the real Robert Graysmith but the nature of our society as we allow ourselves to be consumed by our fear of the unknown, our attraction to that which repels us, and the media's astute manipulations of both.
For Paramount Home Video's new 2-disc edition, Fincher assembled a new director's cut. Running a mere five minutes longer than the theatrical version, it does not seem that much significant footage has been added. Having not seen the earlier cut, I cannot make the comparison myself, but based on what was said in the audio commentaries, the added scenes are only minor and mostly add a little more detail rather than significantly altering the film or the story. What makes this DVD edition worth owning is the new set of terrific bonus features Paramount assembled.
Moving to the visual quality, the film's original 2.35:1 widescreen image has been beautifully preserved in an anamorphic transfer. The picture is crisp and clean, sporting solid black levels that vividly show off the frequent night scenes and heavy use of shadow. The image is slightly dark, but this was clearly intended in order to capture the look of a film made during the time period in which "Zodiac" is set (late 1960s through late 1970s). Colors are rendered beautifully in the film's greenish-brown palette. Contrast is also excellent. The film retains a slick, eerie look throughout that is appropriate to the subject matter.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is deliberately underused. Through the first part of the film, it sounds like essentially a mono track, with the sound generated primarily through the front speakers. About an hour and 40 minutes in, the sound opens up into a stereo-like presentation, still concentrating most of its effort in the front. Dialogue is consistently clear and warm. Period music is generated nicely and loudly without overpowering the voices. Because the film is dialogue-heavy, there are few booming or intense moments in the soundtrack. The occasional gunshot is delivered effectively, but this is generally a pretty moderate soundtrack. Subtitles are offered in English, French, and Spanish.
The film is accompanied on Disc 1 by two audio commentaries. The first is given by director David Fincher. He keeps up a good momentum, speaking mostly about the creative choices he made while filming and where he took artistic license. He is rather low-key but always interesting. Even better is the second commentary, which features actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., screenwriter James Vanderbilt, producer Brad Fischer, and crime novelist James Ellroy. The actors were recorded separately from the rest. Gyllenhaal and Downey provide some entertaining anecdotes, but the real pleasure of this commentary should be attributed to Vanderbilt, Fischer, and Ellroy. These three gentlemen talk extensively about the actual case, some of its history, what they decided to use in the film and why. Ellroy offers much praise for the movie, calling it one of the greatest American crime films ever made. I don't know about the rest of you, but I could listen to this guy talk all day. With his wit and smoky voice, he needs to do more commentaries.
The special features on Disc 2 are divided into two sections—the film and the facts. First up on the film is a 54-minute documentary called "Zodiac Deciphered." Featuring interviews primarily with Vanderbilt and Fischer as well as a few other select cast and crew members, this presents a very good look at the making of the film. A ton of behind-the-scenes footage is shown, and we are treated to discussions on the script, locations, visual effects, and costumes. Fincher is conspicuously absent from the interviews, but this is much more informative and less frivolous than the typical making-of feature.
Following this is a 15-minute featurette, "The Visual Effects of Zodiac." Boasting interviews with members of the special effects team, this segment demonstrates how the film's historical locations and the murder scenes were created through the use of CGI and blue screen. "Zodiac" does not immediately come across as a special effects movie, and this featurette reveals just how seamless the majority of the effects are.
A short segment called "Previsualization" is up next, showing split-screen comparisons between the three finished murder sequences and the initial animatics versions. This is followed by the film's theatrical trailer.
Starting up the facts section is "This is the Zodiac Speaking," a 102-minute documentary on the four known murder cases attributed to the Zodiac. New interviews with the police investigators involved in the case, Robert Graysmith, and two surviving victims help paint vivid ideas of what actually occurred. Photos from the crime scenes are used, as well as vintage interviews with people involved. Some of the interviews reveal how sketchy some of the information in Graysmith's books is, and there are even discrepancies between what some of the police officials said in their official reports and the stories they tell now. This is a fascinating documentary that, in addition to helping us visualize the murders (which are recreated quite faithfully in the movie), also opens up even more mysteries and uncertainties.
"His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen" is the last feature, a 42-minute documentary on Graysmith and Toschi's prime suspect (portrayed in the film by John Carroll Lynch) who could never be convicted and later died, leaving so many questions unanswered. Friends and acquaintances of Allen are interviewed for this documentary, some sure that he was in fact the Zodiac while others deny it. Investigators and crime profilers are also interviewed, all weighing in on the ways in which he fit the patterns of the Zodiac killer and the discrepancies. This is intriguing material, and it all goes to show how the Zodiac killer continues to be a compelling presence even after nearly 40 years.
With "Zodiac," David Fincher and James Vanderbilt do more than simply recreate the investigation of one of America's most notorious serial killers. They tap into our cultural fascination with murderers and our refusal to let them slip between our fingers without justice being served. The debates and theories abounding around the case to this day are a testament to the ways people will twist facts and interpret circumstantial evidence to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion even when none exist. That the film ends on an ambiguous note is absolutely appropriate, thus accurately reflecting the case and perpetuating the quiet unrest that still plagues those affected by the killer, either firsthand or by proxy.