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Director: David Fincher
Although I loved David Fincher’s Fight Club and Panic Room, I still remember being absolutely repulsed and terrified by the exploitative, disturbing Seven—so much so in fact that it was with great hesitation that I sat down to watch Zodiac—Fincher’s return to the serial killer genre. However, humans are advised to face their fears for a reason and I couldn’t have been more surprised or impressed by Zodiac which, despite a few brutal and gory crimes in the beginning to set the tone of obsession that will follow, quickly becomes what Roger Ebert justifiably called the “All the President’s Men of serial killer movies, with Woodward and Bernstein played by a cop and a cartoonist.” Opening with Paramount and Warner Brothers logos that IMDb reported were nearly identical to the ones used in the 1960’s, we are plunged back in time to a long hot summer where two young lovers are murdered in their local make-out spot in the San Francisco Bay Area. The killer phones the police with cold, yet giddy excitement filled with details of his crime and later decides to send letters and ciphers to local papers including The San Francisco Chronicle. Crime beat reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) begins his series of articles on the man who soon named himself Zodiac and proceeded to break his own pattern with two more murders seen in the first half hour that, although shocking, do not seem quite as exploitative or as painstakingly gruesome as the ones exhibited on a typical CSI or Law and Order spin off series. The sudden succession of crimes in the beginning admirably, as most critics noted, gets the traditional horror out of the way so that for the rest of the case we can get lost in the mystery as Avery along with former Eagle Scout, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who later wrote the definitive book on the case begin trying to solve it. Their efforts consist largely of a love of research and bookwork that present a more academic side to the case, which is balanced out by the "just the facts" mentality and efforts of a talented group of police officers, including Anthony Edward’s Inspector William Armstrong and his compulsive animal cracker eating partner, the scene-stealing Mark Ruffalo’s Inspector Dave Toschi who movie buffs may recall was McQueen’s inspiration for Bullitt. The two inspectors try to coordinate their exchange of information with other local cops from nearby cities including Sgt. Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas), and Capt. Ken Narlow (Donal Logue), among others. Although he’s a bit young for his role as Graysmith, there’s a certain natural boy scout quality about Jake Gyllenhaal that has us instantly on the admittedly nerdy hero’s side in his Clark Kent like quest that dangerously becomes such a preoccupation that he begins to receive anonymous calls at his home and his actions threaten the stability of the family he has with second wife Chloe Sevigny. Philip Baker Hall, Brian Cox, Adam Goldberg, Dermot Mulroney, Clea Duvall, James LeGros, Ione Skye (un-credited but her father Donovan’s "Hurdy Gurdy Man" is featured on the soundtrack) and a chilling turn by John Carroll Lynch as prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen help us get lost in the compelling film with an admirable attention to detail that entrances viewers so much that it isn’t until later that one realizes the amount of visual artistry at work from former music video director David Fincher who’s a subtle stylist and received a much-deserved nomination for the 2007 Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival. Further research into his deliberate choices revealed that he cast numerous actors in the role of the Zodiac so that, for each scene, it reflects the victims’ and witnesses' impression of the perpetrator. It’s these little touches that are so easily lost in the crisp high definition digital cinematography by Harris Savides that calls to mind the same look of the work of Michael Mann. As someone who was very unfamiliar with the case and like some movie fans just recall the name and the facts being used as fodder for Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, it’s hard for me to judge whether or not viewers well-versed in the case will find it all too introspective and contemplative but it worked well for me and is one definite entry on the very short list of my favorite films of 2007; although sadly, I worry that it was released too early in the year to be first and foremost in the minds of Academy voters.