'Zodiac': A Sideways Look At the Pursuit of a Killer

Jake Gyllenhaal as the obsessed writer and Chloe Sevigny as his wife.
Jake Gyllenhaal as the obsessed writer and Chloe Sevigny as his wife. (By Merrick Morton -- Paramount Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

"Zodiac" gets in trouble even before the title -- on its poster! It stumbles, though it tells the truth, with a marketing slogan that reads "There's More Than One Way to Lose Your Life to a Killer."

Actually, there's not. The only way that counts and the only way that's interesting is the old way, which is getting killed by the killer. Everything else is bull and spare change.

And that's exactly the problem with this movie: It's not about a killer, or his victims, or the manhunt, or the cops. They're all in it, of course, more or less. But it's about a writer. It's about a young man named Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who becomes so obsessed with it he gives up career and family time to pursue endless arcana. For his effort, he's rewarded with a -- nervous breakdown? A descent into hell? A face-to-face with pure evil itself? Er, no. His reward is a couple of bestsellers and a new life as a successful and widely admired crime writer, plus the movie deal that resulted in this very film. A new way to "lose your life to a killer"? It sounds more like a shattering thriller about a good career move!

The movie is not without value, if it's largely without drama. It evokes the fear that gripped the Bay City when a monster calling himself "Zodiac" was on the prowl, emerging now and then from shadows to wreak ugly violence on the random innocent. Zodiac also had a nauseating flair for self-advertising, and like his inspiration, Jack the Ripper in the London Whitechapel of 1888, loved to send letters to the papers, complete with boasts, puzzles and misspellings. He needed an editor almost as badly as he needed an executioner.

It also documents the way actual malfeasance enters pop culture and becomes a parody of itself. So sensational was a late Zodiac letter -- "I shall wipe out a school bus some morning. just shoot out the front tire & then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out" -- that it inspired the movie "Dirty Harry," with its Scorpio villain who brings his wrath to bear on a school bus, but, alas, runs into Clint Eastwood's larger wrath. If that version of the story was infinitely satisfying in its melodramatic symmetry, the reality never achieved such compelling closure. It just eventually ran out of steam.

That's a continual problem for "Zodiac" director David Fincher because way, way too much of the film is guys sitting in a room talking about it over and over and over, waiting for a climax that never comes. The movie makes clear the agonizing reality that a manhunt is 99.9 percent talking and record-checking.

"Zodiac" gets off with a series of bangs, by dramatizing the third of the Zodiac killer's five "canonical" murders. On July 4, 1969, two necking youngsters in a car, thinking the universe full of love and hormones, suspect little when another car pulls into lover's lane. They fail to notice the approach of a man with a gun, but from point-blank range he dispatches evil in chunks moving at a thousand feet per second. One lives; the other dies. It's hideous, and Fincher has a real gift for evoking the weight of the violence.

But from there, the scene moves to the newspaper world. Fincher also has a wonderful feel for life as it was lived in newsrooms, and his vision of the Chronicle's layout will make anybody who newspapered in the years before computers came in and turned the places into insurance-office pods achy with sentimentality. These were large, filthy rooms that stank of decades' worth of sweat, smoke and ink, punctuated by the weirdly hollow pop of copy being sent to composing by pneumatic tube; the people in these rooms tended to be large and filthy too, but also somewhat mythic.

Fincher, working off a script by James Vanderbilt, focuses on Graysmith, a young cartoonist, who watches in awe as the superstars deal with the issues. The central figure from that era is a flamboyant (he reminded me a little of John Wilkes Booth, for some reason) crime reporter named Paul Avery, with San Francisco's best Rolodex, who knew everybody and could talk to anybody, even if most people seemed to despise him. If ever a role called for Robert Downey Jr., this is the one, and Downey, with florid mannerisms and the total comfort of the newsroom star, plays the part brilliantly.

At this point, we shift not to the investigation but to the investigation of the investigation, as Downey chronicles the town's two most famous cops, who are assigned the case. They are a detective with a famous upside-down speed-draw holster (said to have influenced Steve McQueen's Frank Bullitt) named Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).

It's a long trek, however, following not the streamlined, truncated dull-parts-cut-out format of melodrama but the stuttery, incoherent lurching consistent with messy reality. For example, half an hour is spent on Zodiac's flirtation with mega-lawyer Melvin Belli, all of which comes to nothing; 10 more minutes are used to examine the almost-killing of a young mother, which may or may not be an authentic Zodiac event.

Twice again the movie is lit by two incandescent scenes of violence, which leave you shaken and disturbed: a murderous assault on two people on a picnic and the execution-style killing of a taxi driver, when the perpetrator is almost caught.

Mostly, "Zodiac" is people talking. Newsroom politics, media politics, police politics, the friction between jurisdictions, ranks, factions, theorists, all the coming together of personalities and points of view in a massive police effort as tracked by a major journalistic effort, are delineated.

The thread that brings it all together is Graysmith's eventual submersion in the case, until, even though he's since married and had children (Chloe Sevigny is wasted as his wife), the case becomes his life.

Thus in its second half, the movie becomes essentially a brief for Graysmith's interpretation and solution of the mystery. Graysmith chooses a suspect and works to prove he is, indeed, the one. Is it convincing? Well, yes, even if the movie cheats by not evoking the full range of other suspects (Wikipedia lists 15 in all). It's nobody's fault that the movie can't end with a stunner, but you've sat there for almost three hours, and you think: Is that it?

Zodiac (170 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme violence, drug material, profanity, brief sexual images.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company