My knowledge of the real Zodiac killer was virtually nil when I set foot in the theater (although I was familiar with it when a copycat killer surfaced in NYC in the early 90s), but I knew that Fincher is a stickler for the facts and low and behold, the title card comes up at the beginning that the film is based on true events and that every effort have been made to maintain its accuracy. While the film is based on Robert Greysmith’s books on the Zodiac and is therefore subject to much conjecture as to the killer’s true identity (who was never caught), the feeling is real and attention to detail is first rate. Though the murder scenes in the film’s first half (where some of the victims survived) are incredibly harrowing to watch, ZODIAC is by no means exploitive (unlike the recent Ulli Lommel opus) and Fincher’s restraint and matter-of-factness with these sequences is much of what makes them so startling. They also help to ratchet up the suspense in later scenes (yes, I actually used the old “ratchet up the suspense” critic’s cliché, so what of it?) because we know what this killer is capable of and we don’t want to witness that again. Rather unexpectedly, ZODIAC is a serial killer movie with respect for human life and while sometimes terrifying, it’s not a horror film by any means but more in the tradition of the great police procedurals as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and investigative thrillers as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. It’s about smart people driven by ambition, obsession and the need to do the right thing no matter what and it’s fascinating throughout. Though the film is long (160 minutes), I never once felt the length, nor did I find the lack of a traditional conclusion to the narrative to be a burden. If anything, it adds to the film’s mystique, because even though the film comes up with its own logical solution, the lack of any real proof or evidence is just as troubling to the viewer as it is to its characters.
Equally impressive is the cast that Fincher has collected, not only the film’s three leads, but in nearly every supporting role as well. Such faves as Candy Clarke, John Getz, John Terry, Clea Duvall, Ione Skye and Charles Fleischer (in an incredibly impressive performance) show up and give real performances that flesh out their characters, as opposed to just some kind of Rob Zombie fanboy stunt casting. But to be true, everyone gets their own moment (Robert Downey, Jr. gets several) and another great thing about the film is that there are plenty of memorable character scenes spread throughout, my favorite probably being a first date between Jake Gyllenhaal and Chloe Sevingy, who has never been this charming before. If there’s one overriding flaw that got me throughout the film, it’s that for a story that spreads out over 15 years, Gyllenhaal’s character does not age at all. Certainly the character evolves, but everyone else gets a little older, a little grayer, a little fatter, except for Gyllenhaal. Maybe I just didn’t notice any of the gray hairs or anything, but it stuck out. I’m also quite mixed on Fincher’s use of HD photography on the film. It often looks clean, bright beautiful and it does give the film a distinctive look, but the HD seams sometimes show (strobing and ghosting when characters move too quickly) and I think that Fincher could have achieved an even better, richer look by shooting on film instead (and I must say that I am not the world’s biggest proponent of HD photography, just so you understand where I’m coming from). But those are, in the end, minor quibbles. So much of ZODIAC is so well done (one last shout out goes to the film’s amazing soundtrack, especially the use of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”) that it may end up becoming an instant classic and justifiably so. Sometimes you can just feel it once it’s all said and done and ZODIAC has that feeling. Fincher has impressed and knocked your socks off before, but never like this. He’s reached another level as a filmmaker and storyteller and there's no going back. I love watching talent improve like this.