Ever since my dad bought me a copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s true crime novel Helter Skelter, an account of the crimes and trial of Charles Manson, I developed a mild fascination with serial killers. There’s something about the psychology and pathology of people that commit heinous crimes, not once but many times that is morbidly compelling. As my review for The Social Network and my constant praise on here for Fight Club note, I’m a big fan of director David Fincher. He’s the current king of darker examinations of human nature, and his 2007 true-life thriller Zodiac just reaffirms my suspicions that he, along with Darren Aranofsky, is one of the most under-appreciated artists working in Hollywood today.

Zodiac is, on the surface, about the most famous unsolved serial killing case in our nation’s history, that of the Zodiac Killer. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a spree of murders were committed up and down the California coast and mysterious letters with codes meant to toy with the press and the police. The film is shown from the perspective of those doing the investigating, crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), homicide detective Dave Tarfsky (Mark Ruffalo), and cartoonist Robert Greysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Over the course of an investigation that on film lasts over a decade (and continues long after the movie is over), you get a look at how an unsolvable crime becomes an obsession that threatens to tear these men’s lives apart.

This film is one of the most detailed and authentic crime procedurals that I’ve ever seen put to film. It’s nearly three hours long and the investigation is incredibly realistic, so for some people, the movie can be kind of boring, but for somebody like me who cut his teeth on The Wire, it’s endlessly fascinating. You’re sent on a million wild goose chases, false leads, and copy cats. Even at the end of the film, when you’re given an idea of who everyone ultimately thought the Zodiac Killer was, you’re left the realistic sense that so much of the investigation is circumstantial or hear say or unreliable testimony. It’s also great to see a realistic portrayal of investigative journalism and this film does that portrayal better than any film since All the President’s Men.

The casting for this film is wonderful, as all Fincher films usually are. This might be a controversial opinion since Tony Stark has become his iconic role, but I think this is Robert Downey Jr’s best role since his career making turn in Less than Zero. I normally think that Jake Gyllenhaal is often an over-rated pretty boy but along with his performance in Brokeback Mountain, this is one of the high points of his career. His transformation from a nerdy cartoonist with an above average interest in the case to a man obsessed with catching the Zodiac himself is a great bit of acting. I keep seeing Mark Ruffalo pop up in all sorts of little roles in the movies I’m watching here and I never think of him as being a great actor but I seem to consistently enjoy all of the bit parts he shows up in and this is a beefier role that he plays perfectly. The stellar cast is also rounded out with Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, Brian Cox, and Elias Koteas.

 

I’m one of those people that freaks out a little bit if I get more than two or three A’s or B’s in a row on a multiple choice test, and my film scores lately have all been a little high, and I’m freaking out and wondering if I’m losing my critical skills. I’m concerned because Zodiac is, in my opinion, a truly great film and the score I’m about to give it is something that’s supposed to be rare. Although, I’ve been reviewing a lot of TV lately and I’m purposefully watching TV shows that I think are stellar. My movie scores have been a little more balanced and spread out so maybe I’m freaking out about nothing. Anyways, if you like crime movies and a good old fashioned mystery, this movie is simply must watch and one of the best crime thrillers in years.

 Final Score: A

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