Blu-ray Review: Zodiac (2007) -- 2-Disc Director's Cut

"This is the Zodiac" Blu-ray
Arriving on 1/27/09

An Introduction

While I'm hesitant to make lists, once I saw 2007's Zodiac, I realized that it was hands down one of the five best films released that year. More All The President's Men than Psycho-- this true tale gives audiences a factual account of the maddeningly unsolved serial killings perpetrated in California during the '60s and '70s.

Basing the film on not only San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist turned amateur detective Robert Graysmith's definitive books on the case but also the exhaustive police interviews, witness accounts, and facts that could fill countless football stadiums, it gives us the opportunity to sleuth along, trying to solve the case.

Quickly into the movie, we take in the facts, rule in and out testimonies and get an insider's view of the various police departments involved, the journalistic plight (as primarily it's told from Graysmith's point-of-view)and the witness accounts of each horrific incident.

Gripping and never exploitative-- the type of intellectually challenging filmmaking that proves that truth is always more compelling than fiction, David Fincher's underrated masterpiece puts all of those sensational and gritty crime scene television shows to shame with this startlingly authentic work.

Primarily using digital photography throughout to recreate streets and areas that no longer exist and with an unrelenting struggle to represent the characters, settings, and events with the utmost in integrity and accuracy-- this 2-disc Blu-ray edition of the Director's Cut, previously released as a 3-Disc DVD is filled with more case files and interviews that will no doubt send your minds working overtime and second-guessing not just the film's prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen but also some of the other characters used throughout.

However, before I go into the extras of the eerily packaged collection that replicates the Zodiac's letters, misspellings and an old fashioned Chronicle like typeface, I'll serve up my original review of Fincher's work, dated 11/7/07.

I. The Film

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 1960s, 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 film 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 books 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.

II. The Blu-ray

And while unfortunately I was right in that Academy voters ignored the film and disappointingly, it also failed to garner a single accolade in its twenty-four nominations from various sources, most likely because of its early calendar year release, it's nonetheless a film that improves not just on repeat viewings when one becomes more aware of the subtle nuances throughout but also given its originally and predominately technical source digital photography.

Simply put while I'm sure that the theatrical version was something to behold, the digital transfer of Zodiac is mind-bogglingly good and although initially, my first encounter with the film was via DVD, the Blu-ray surpasses it easily with extraordinary crispness in picture and sound.

Moreover, you can tell how proud Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures are of the finished result, as they went ahead and upgraded every single special feature save for one on disc two into high definition to make it worthy of an upgrade and are additionally offering a ten dollar rebate to those who already own the film on DVD who are switching to Blu.

The engrossing 162 minute film stands alone on the first disc with two commentary options-- the first with helmer and noted stylistic perfectionist David Fincher who is able to best articulate his decisions throughout (as in disc two we see Jake Gyllenhaal complete 36 takes of flipping a book to make it land precisely the right way) and the second by actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. along with producer Brad Fischer, James Vanderbilt (who produced and penned the screenplay) as well as critically acclaimed mystery scribe and crime aficionado James Ellroy (author of L.A. Confidential).

However for curious would-be sleuths and those audience members who became easily obsessed in trying to solve the case, the real attraction of this edition is the second disc which is divided into two parts focusing on "The Film" and "The Facts," for those who want to go more in-depth with either the making of the feature or the overwhelming mystery itself.

Obviously, as a writer, I went directly for "The Facts," and devoured every detail of the feature-lenth documentary This is the Zodiac Speaking (directed and produced by Fincher himself) that covers every single crime scene, including the first one that wasn't depicted in the film and interviews every surviving victim, detective, and individual who took part in the investigation.

A recurring and underlining theme running throughout This is the Zodiac is that overall, we're dealing with human error, inexperience, and a thirty to forty year plus recollection as angrily we discover the numerous times that first responders may in fact have passed the Zodiac leaving a scene as they approached it in deserted side roads. Additionally, we learn about some facts that were left out of police reports including victim accounts that described the killer, contradictory testimony by a few witnesses and survivors where names other than Arthur Leigh Allen are used, and a general sense of confusion as we try to evaluate all of it with our civilian skills as opposed to the trained eye of a detective.

In perhaps one of the most revealing yet alternatively unsettling pieces entitled His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen, the Blu-ray offers viewers a 42 minute look at the man whom Graysmith and Toschi ended up concluding was in fact the killer, yet certain revelations including some chilling accounts from Don Cheney (who was initially the person that led the detectives and writers in Allen's direction) make one think there's more to the story than we'll ever know.

Was he a co-conspirator? Were there other people involved? Were copycats at play? We'll never know exactly and the investigation continues in a few departments with new leads and more would-be Graysmiths trying to see just what they can uncover, no doubt inspired by Fincher's film and Graysmith's true-crime classic accounts.

Sensitive to gore, I didn't investigate the non-high definition Previsualization extra which offers split-screen comparisons of the three murder sequences included in the film but did find the 53 minute documentary on the feature, Zodiac Deciphered to be well worth a look as those involved admit to finding the case contagious sometimes spending hours when they should be in wardrobe, going over various details and facts.

In order to honor everyone involved and make the film as authentic as possible, the filmmakers set out to use exactly what the victims were wearing and in one particular instance, had to shoot a crime scene in a different location to make it look identical to how it would've been back then as time has eroded locations.

Primarily shot digitally, the director, writer and producers all agreed that they didn't want to make Zodiac a horror genre film since real lives were taken, real families shattered, and so they made the killing scenes just as straightforward and accurate as possible, not adding extra gore or oomph for our desensitized audiences who prefer Saw to brainy Hitchcockian styled thrillers like Fincher's The Game.

And in doing so, it's essential to point out that the crimes all occur within the first 45 minutes and-- much like real life-- we're left with the aftermath for more than double that time as it continues. Well worth the investment and one of the most impressive true crime films I've ever seen-- while most who are rightfully alarmed when the phrase "serial killer" is used-- I urge viewers to give it a chance. This is all the more essential since the film is ultimately focused on determination, intellect, logic and the American obsession to ensure that the bad guys don't get away with bad deeds that's sure to pull you in along with Graysmith.

Moreover, we want to resolve the mystery, set wrongs right to at least give families closure because we can never bring back their loved ones and be able to say once and for all--in a civilized society-- you can't do this without consequences as the Robert Graysmiths, Dave Toschis, Paul Averys, James Vanderbilts, David Finchers and countless others will be watching you.