Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, John, Jason, and Dean provide their respective views on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to John:
Director David Fincher ("Se7en," "Fight Club," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") prefaces his 2007 movie "Zodiac" by writing, "What follows is based on actual case files." What you have to understand going into the picture is that the police never solved the notorious, real-life Zodiac murders, so you can't expect a conventional resolution to the crimes. For some viewers, that may prove frustrating. When I first saw the film in a theater, I remember several people leaving the movie house upset with the ending. They wanted to see justice done; they wanted a Bullitt or a Dirty Harry to bring in the villain. Well, it hardly needs a spoiler to tell you in advance that that didn't happen. The case is still open, the investigation is technically ongoing, and nobody ever caught the killer. You live with that from the outset.
Maybe I liked the picture more than a lot of folks because I'm a lifelong resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, the setting for the story. For the sake of authenticity, Fincher used the Bay Area and other California locations extensively in filming the movie--in areas like the City itself, Lake Berryessa, Vallejo, Sacramento, and other local environs, all of them pretty familiar to me. That and the fact that I followed the Zodiac killings for years in the San Francisco "Chronicle" so I was familiar with the character names made it all the more meaningful for me.
This is not your usual Fincher movie, with dark, shadowy scenes, grisly murders, and macabre irony, although you'll find some of those elements in the film. Instead, it's a kind of dramatized semidocumentary, spending more time on the personalities involved in the incidents than on the crimes themselves. Not that the film doesn't deserve its R rating: Fincher doesn't shrink from showing us the brutal killings; it's just that the police only actually confirmed about five Zodiac murders, with Zodiac himself claiming some thirteen-to-fifteen murders that the police could never verify. So, the story suggests a lot of killing off stage, so to speak, by way of letters the murderer wrote to the newspapers.
Period music helps to establish the era, which covers the years 1969-1990, with songs from Santana, Donovan, Boz Skaggs, Three Dog Night, Jose Feliciano, Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, and the like. And Fincher is meticulous in replicating the appearance of the period, right down to duplicating the "Chronicle" pressroom. (About the only complaint I heard from reporters who were there at the time was that the movie makes the pressroom desks too clean; real reporters are apparently a lot sloppier than their movie counterparts.)
Although the film is a good police procedural that moves methodically through the available clues, its strong suit is its characterizations. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt based their story on the best-selling books by Robert Graysmith, the editorial cartoonist for the "Chronicle" at the time of the events and the film's main character. Yet Graysmith only comes into his own in the movie's second half. In the beginning he's more of an onlooker, his curiosity building as the killings continue and the police run down false lead after false lead.
Graysmith's colleagues described him as a "Boy Scout," a straight-arrow type who became involved in the Zodiac saga as much to see the criminal caught as to sell books. But who can tell? In the movie Jake Gyllenhaal plays him in an appropriately understated manner. As the years go by, we see Graysmith becoming more and more consumed and obsessed by the crimes, to the point that when the police practically give up the case, he is still going strong investigating it, despite the police telling him to keep out. When Graysmith's wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny) asks him "Why do you need to do this?" he responds "Because nobody else will."
Of perhaps greater interest than Graysmith, though, are San Francisco Police Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and "Chronicle" crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.). Toschi and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards, who is rather the odd-man-out, getting lost among the other cast members) are the lead investigators, but it is Toschi who gets the most credit for his dogged pursuit of the suspects. He had already achieved a measure of fame earlier when Steve McQueen announced that he had copied Toschi's style of wearing his gun for the character of Frank Bullitt; so when Toschi headed up one of the most-celebrated criminal investigations in history, there was probably a note of headline-seeking in the proceedings. Again, who knows?
We'll never be sure of the real motivations for any of the characters, from the killer on down. Everyone got their fair share of celebrity out of it, not the least of whom was reporter Paul Avery, who for a while pursued the story with as much zeal as the police. Did he do it because he seriously wanted to see the culprit caught or because he reveled in the publicity he was generating for the serial killer and for himself? One thing is clear: Downey's portrayal of the flamboyant, hard-drinking Avery steals the show, which is no surprise considering that Downey is one those actors like Michael Caine and Gene Hackman who are always the best part of any movie they're in. After four decades in film, Downey is finally catching the public's eye in a big way with "Iron Man" and "Tropic Thunder," and it's about time.
Back to "Zodiac": Was there controversy surrounding the case? Sure thing. Should the newspapers have published the Zodiac's letters, his requests for attention, as they did? Did publishing the killer's cryptic messages contribute to his further killings, or did it help satisfy his murderous impulses for the moment? Maybe we'll never know.
Fincher develops a matter-of-fact atmosphere throughout the film, an intentional "Dragnet" type of approach. OK, I did find it a long movie in its theatrical run, and this Director's Cut is about four minutes longer, so I wish Fincher had cut things down instead of lengthening them. Yet for me the movie still never flagged or sagged, despite its length. This two-and-half hours went by faster than 90% of the pictures I watch at half that length. Well, it's still Fincher, after all, and he does know how to build tension. One scene in a suspect's cellar generates more suspense than most horror flicks do.
I enjoyed "Zodiac," even though it doesn't move at the frenzied pace of most traditional thrillers and even though we know from the start how it's going to end. Think of it as you might "All the President's Men," an effective reenactment of some chilling real-life events.
John's film rating: 7/10
The Film According to Jason:
David Fincher's "Zodiac" has been called "Se7en: Part Two" in some circles. This film, about California's Zodiac serial killer, has more in common with TV's "Law & Order" than the Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman film.
The year is 1969 and a string of murders starts in California: A boy and a girl in a secluded "make-out" spot. Another couple in broad daylight by a lake. A cab driver. Concurrent with each of these attacks, three newspapers in the San Francisco area receive letters containing a message in code as well as a note taking credit for the killings. At the San Francisco "Chronicle," cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes enraptured with the story, as does a colleague, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.). Over the course of time, the investigation grows cold and everyone moves on from Zodiac...except Graysmith.
"Zodiac," running an overlong 158 minutes (or 2 hours 38 minutes), has little in common with director Fincher's arguably most famous film "Se7en." Both films center on serial killers and document the struggle to bring him to justice. However, where "Se7en" gave us a kinetic investigation and an unforgettable finale, "Zodiac" is hampered by the fact that it is based on a true story...and the Zodiac killer is still at large. Going in, we know there isn't going to be a neat wrap up to the story when the screen fades to black for the last time. It takes the wind out of the movie's sails from the very start.
It may be that we, as an American audience, are accustomed to all our stories having an end point, something that ties up the plot lines in a nice neat bow. That is the very definition of "climax," isn't it? When all the pieces come together and the entire picture is finally formed? There are instances when one plot line is stretched for the run of an entire TV series ("Lost") or a franchise of films (Harry Potter), but by and large we are conditioned to accept the wrap up. Outside of a couple paragraphs immediately before the end credits roll, there is no closure to the case. Mostly because it is still unsolved.
For a movie about a serial killer, "Zodiac" is suspiciously light on any sort of action. It is true the opening murder is bloody and somewhat graphic; yet an attack later in the film doesn't follow normal Hollywood action conventions. Blood doesn't spurt out of every stab wound nor does clothing become immediately saturated with the red liquid. It feels sanitized, in a way, as if Fincher was aiming to make a different kind of murder story.
"Zodiac" is more "Law & Order" than "Seven" in another respect: We follow the investigation from the beginning from the vantage point of two detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) as well as from the point of view of the Avery and Graysmith. It's a very linear film in that respect. Everything the police know--and by default, what the audience knows--comes in easily manageable pieces. Sometimes those pieces are too manageable and obvious. An interview sequence takes great pains to point out, using various camera shots, the type of shoe Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) wears; his watch is a Zodiac watch; he walks with the same near limp as the Zodiac killer. If the shots weren't enough by Fincher to clue the audience in, Ruffalo's David Toschi then gives voice to all these things. How much more obvious can it get?
There is just something wrong with "Zodiac" I can't put my finger on. It tells its story effectively and remains mostly engrossing. The running time is a concern, especially when the cops exit the investigation in the film's latter stages so Graysmith can continue to track Zodiac. While this part of the film might be true, it seems terribly forced from a critical view. How many times have the cops given up only to have an "everyman" get further than they did? Entirely too many, for the record. That's exactly what happens here, though we have no good reason to believe Graysmith's obsession rationalization. He claims he needs to see Zodiac's eyes and know it was him.
This cartoonist has no personal stake in finding Zodiac. His family was not threatened. No one he knew was killed. Why would be put his wife and children in harm's way? And why would the police allow him to do it? Toschi, among others, helps him out by granting access to evidence and information. That has to be some kind of security breach, not to mention a liability issue. Is it because his "friend" Avery was obsessed with the case and was driven to ruin because of it? Possibly, but the "friendship" between the two men is never fully explored enough to get the audience to that point. The only other reason could be in a line Graysmith utters fairly early in the film: he likes puzzles. And Zodiac is a puzzle.
But what is it that keeps "Zodiac" from being as acclaimed as it should be, especially with this all-star cast? Nothing happens, pure and simple. The cops and reporters are stuck in a reactive, as opposed to proactive, mode. They have to wait for Zodiac to give them a clue before they start running prints or handwriting samples. The most kinetic and serial killer-esque sequence in the film centers on Graysmith's encounter with a former associate of Allen's on...you guess it...a dark and rainy night in the middle of nowhere. This old man lives in a decaying house, his basement acting as storage for vintage films. Graysmith believes this man, this old man, is Zodiac at this point based on one line of dialogue. So when he's invited into the basement, the entire audience (and Graysmith) believe the inevitable is going to happen: an action finale. To spoil anymore would be wrong, since it is the tensest portion of the production.
In forsaking the typical serial killer genre, Fincher dove headlong into the dreaded "based on actual events" genre. We're even told that at the outset: "...based on actual case files." And that's, alternately, what is right and wrong with this film: It adheres so closely to the books written by the real-life Graysmith, it never pops its head up to care what its doing. The information is all there, irrefutably, but the emotion is gone. When Graysmith's wife leaves him (along with the kids), he doesn't start cursing uncontrollably or vow to give up the Zodiac investigation; he lets her go and focuses even more on Zodiac. This is a man whose priorities are seriously out of touch with where they should be.
Before we wrap up, it would be wrong not to mention the cast. Gyllenhaal shows he is more than a one-note cowboy. In the aforementioned basement sequence, there is a terror in his eyes absent during the rest of the film. Somehow, at that moment, we understand the horrific thoughts running through his head, more horrific than the idea of losing his family. He is fearful for himself. Downey, Jr., does what he does best: the just-off-center character who brings a bit of spice to the story. Regrettably, the Paul Avery character drops out of the narrative far too early. Brian Cox, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, Clea DuVall (in a blink and you miss her role), Philip Baker Hall...they all add to the overall narrative, flawed as it is.
The overload of information about the Zodiac feels too much like reading a case file without any real human emotion. Well produced, "Zodiac" is a diversion and a history lesson, but, sadly, little more.
Jason's film rating: 6/10
The Film According to Dean:
The name David Fincher first came to my attention when I needed someone to blame for the horrid debacle known as "Alien 3." The "Alien" franchise was among my favorites after the first two films, but Fincher's creation simply stunk. The director then made some amends with the powerful and gripping thriller "Se7en." That was perhaps my favorite film of 1995. The next time David Fincher's name came to my attention was his second collaboration with Brad Pitt, the thought-provoking and entertaining picture "Fight Club." These two films are evidence that Fincher can excel with proper material, and his two other major motion pictures, "The Game" and "Panic Room," are themselves solid films, and Fincher followed them with the true-life thriller "Zodiac."
"Zodiac" is based upon the books by Zodiac killer chronicler Robert Graysmith. Graysmith was a cartoonist for the San Francisco "Chronicle" during the height of the Zodiac murders. Graysmith had become heavily involved with the details surrounding the mysterious serial killer and devoted his entire life to pursuing the facts and hoping to discover the identity of the killer that had baffled police. The picture stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith and features a strong supporting cast including Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny and Elias Koteas.
On July 4th, 1969, the Zodiac killer slaughtered Darlene Ferrin and nearly killed her boyfriend Mike Mageau. The film begins with this event and starts looking at the investigation into the Zodiac killer. San Francisco detectives David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to the case and struggle to uncover evidence and create some cooperation with Vallejo detectives and the press, which includes reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and cartoonist Graysmith. The Zodiac killer had sent a letter to Avery, and Graysmith had decrypted one of the coded messages sent by the killer. They start to begin their own investigation into the killings and are not always supported by the detectives in charge of the case. Eventually, the police uncover a prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), but are unable to find enough supporting evidence to charge Allen as the Zodiac killer.
As the years pass and the trail begins to get cold, Armstrong transfers to a new department and leaves his partner Toschi as the sole investigator for the case. The hard-drinking and hard-living Paul Avery dies of a respiratory problem as a result of his smoking. There is hardly any interest in uncovering the facts of the Zodiac killings, but Graysmith becomes infatuated with his own investigation and continues on with the case. He finds a reluctant partnership with Toschi and some of the police detectives from Vallejo and other communities that had been part of the investigation. Graysmith's fanatical research into the killings brings about an end to his marriage, but it does not stop his pursuit of knowledge. Eventually, Graysmith finds the man he is searching for and believes he has uncovered the true identity of the Zodiac killer.
"Zodiac" is a good film by Fincher. The film moves slowly and delves deep into the police investigation and details pertaining to the Zodiac and Graysmith's writings. With the film's strong attention to detail, the film feels plodding and heavy for long stretches of time, but it never becomes uninteresting. The very strong cast assembled for the production helps "Zodiac" through every scene. There are not many better actors in Hollywood today than Robert Downey, Jr., but Jake Gyllenhaal continually proves he is worth an almost equal amount of praise. The rest of the cast builds credibility towards the real-life case detailed by Graysmith, and "Zodiac" becomes a superior true-life crime drama that is intriguing in its details and purposeful in its vision. The film cannot eclipse Fincher's own "Se7en," but that was a fictional work, and this one is based on true life. The events in "Zodiac" are not difficult to believe, whereas "Se7en" was completely over the edge. Grounded in realism, "Zodiac" does feel heavy, and it never fails to hold one's interest.
Dean's film rating: 8/10
I don't believe the digital video quality on this disc is among the very best I've ever seen, but, then, when I originally saw the movie in a theater, I didn't think it had the best picture quality I'd ever seen there, either. Moreover, for this Blu-ray release Paramount appear to use the same MPEG-4/AVC encode they used for their HD DVD edition the year before, although this time they have a fifty-gigabyte, dual-layer disc to work with; the upshot is that if you have the earlier HD DVD transfer, this one looks about the same, and it's probably as good as one can expect because it conveys all of the film's 2.35:1-ratio, digitally shot image, with colors and definition just as I remember them from the theater. However, the hues are not always too bright or too vivid. Fincher intended them to look as natural and subdued as possible to complement the understated tone of the movie. As he did in "Fight Club," he seems partial to mild greenish-yellow tints and occasional dark, murky scenes. Definition is slightly soft in medium and long shots, but it's excellent in close-ups.
There isn't a lot to say about the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio beyond its doing its job. The fact is, because of Fincher's semidocumentary approach to the subject matter, very few scenes contain any dramatic sonic content. Mostly, Fincher creates a realistic setting of subtle surround sounds, like typewriters, crowd noises, footsteps, rain, and thunder. The bass line is modest but dependable, the highs are sparkling when necessary, and the midrange is admirably smooth and clear. Yep, there is also a helicopter flyover. Sonically, there isn't a lot going on to speak of, but what's there sounds fine in TrueHD.
Disc one of this two-disc Blu-ray set contains the feature film and a pair of no-nonsense audio commentaries, the first by director David Fincher and the other by co-stars Jake Gyllenhall and Robert Downey, Jr., producer Brad Fischer, screenwriter/producer James Vanderbilt, and crime novelist James Ellroy. In addition, you'll find twenty-seven scene selections; English as the only spoken language; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; pop-up menus; and bookmarks.
Disc two contains the rest of the extras, most of them in high definition. These bonus items are divided into two categories, "The Film" and "The Facts." First up under "The Film" is "Zodiac Deciphered," a fifty-four-minute documentary on the making of the movie. It is a highly detailed behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking, with segments on "Blue Rock Springs," "The San Francisco Chronicle," "The Hall of Justice," "Presidio Heights," "Lake Berryessa," and "Obsession," featuring interviews with practically everyone involved in the production of the film. Following that documentary we get a fifteen-minute bit called "The Visual Effects of Zodiac," self-explanatory; and about six minutes of "Previsualization," split-screen comparisons of three scenes in CGI storyboards and finished product (and the only sections in standard definition), which include "Blue Rock Springs," "Lake Berryessa," and "San Francisco." Finishing up "The Film" section is a widescreen theatrical trailer.
Next, we come to "The Facts," which contains two more documentaries. The first and longest of these is the 102-minute documentary "This Is the Zodiac Speaking." It's divided into four chapters, each corresponding to a key murder scene: "Lake Herman Road," "Blue Rock Springs," "Lake Berryessa," and "San Francisco." This documentary takes you into the crime scenes with archival footage, present-day footage, maps, and interviews with the surviving officers and participants in the actual events. Then, the final bonus item is probably the most fascinating of all: "Prime Suspect: His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen." In this forty-two-minute documentary we hear from a number of people who knew the leading suspect in the case, and they describe his personality and behavior.
So, there you have it: Three different people, three different opinions. David Fincher did not make another "Fight Club" or "Se7en," but he did make a good movie version of a real-life crime spree that still intrigues people a quarter of a century later. Neither horror film nor thriller, "Zodiac" is nevertheless a competent drama and splendid character study, filled out with some of the finest acting you'll see in any Fincher film. While I'm not sure the Director's Cut adds much of value, it probably serves its purpose in offering bargain hunters something more for their money. About four minutes more, when a little less would have been better. Oh, well.... Blu-ray high definition at least makes it all the more enjoyable to watch.