Ter­ror tales of the city

Zo­diac is a grip­ping de­pic­tion of San Fran­cisco stalked by a se­rial killer, writes ZO­DIAC Di­rected by David Fincher. Star­ring Jake Gyl­len­haal, Mark Ruf­falo, Robert Downey Jr, An­thony Ed­wards, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Chloë Se­vi­gny, Der­mot Mul­roney, Donal

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews - Michael Dwyer

SCREENED in com­pe­ti­tion at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val last night, David Fincher’s new movie fol­lows in fas­ci­nat­ing de­tail the hunt for a se­rial killer who adopted the code name of Zo­diac and ter­rorised the San Fran­sisco Bay Area for years af­ter he first struck in the late 1960s. The story is true, but it may be more familiar to view­ers on this side of the At­lantic as the in­spi­ra­tion for Don Siegel’s fic­tion­alised treat­ment in the abra­sive Dirty Harry (1971), where the vil­lain was named af­ter a zo­diac sign, Scorpio.

At one point in Fincher’s film, two of the most dogged in­ves­ti­ga­tors of the mur­ders meet in a cin­ema lobby af­ter a screen­ing of Dirty Harry. “So much for due process,” re­marks homi­cide in­spec­tor David Toschi (Mark Ruf­falo) to po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist Robert Gray­smith (Jake Gyl­len­haal), who be­came wholly ob­sessed with the case, to the detri­ment of his mar­riage.

James Van­der­bilt’s im­pec­ca­bly shaped screen­play draws ex­ten­sively on the two books Gray­smith wrote about the search for the killer. Van­der­bilt’s re­search ex­tended to por­ing through masses of po­lice re­ports and in­ter­view­ing peo­ple in­volved with the case.

The film’s art di­rec­tion and cos­tume de­sign are equally thor­ough in au­then­ti­cally recre­at­ing a pe­riod where peo­ple smoke in work­places, women are con­spic­u­ously ab­sent from news­rooms, the fax ma­chine has just ar­rived, and Hair is play­ing at a down­town theatre. Fincher, who grew up in the Bay Area and was a child at the time, opens his movie on July 4th, 1969, two years af­ter the Sum­mer of Love and five weeks be­fore Charles Man­son’s gang went on a killing spree at Ro­man Polan­ski and Sharon Tate’s house in Los An­ge­les.

The sound­track ju­di­ciously blends David Shire’s spare, moody orig­i­nal score with a juke­box of res­o­nant hit sin­gles, Dono­van’s Hurdy Gurdy Man tak­ing on sin­is­ter over­tones as it plays over the se­rial killer’s at­tack on a young cou­ple in their parked car.

A month later Zo­diac sends the first of many taunt­ing let­ters to three Bay Area news­pa­pers, giv­ing each of them parts of a ci­pher that, if de­coded, would re­veal his iden­tity. Gray­smith, a puz­zles en­thu­si­ast, is in the San Fran­sisco Chron­i­cle news­room when the let­ter ar­rives, and he is just as in­trigued as the pa­per’s cyn­i­cal, flam­boy­ant in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr).

Fincher, in marked con­trast to his provoca­tive treat­ment of dark themes in Se7en and Fight Club, ap­plies un­typ­i­cal re­straint, set aside only to il­lus­trate the killer’s cold-blood­edly me­thod­i­cal approach when he pre­pares two vic­tims for ex­e­cu­tion in broad day­light against a scenic Napa County vista.

In­stead he adopts a classical sto­ry­telling style for an in­tri­cate pro­ce­dural thriller as he charts the minu­tiae of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which con­tin­ued for decades, and the toll it wreaked on its par­tic­i­pants. He achieves this with clar­ity and pre­ci­sion, so per­sua­sively com­mand­ing the viewer’s alert at­ten­tion that it never flags over an ex­tended run­ning time.

Zo­diac, I ex­pect, will prove even more sat­is­fy­ing on a sec­ond view­ing, and cer­tainly de­serves an award from the Cannes jury. That, most likely, will go to one of its re­mark­able cast, and not to Ruf­falo’s stud­ied Brando homage or Gyl­len­haal’s ideally un­der­stated por­trayal, but to Downey Jr, who is riv­et­ing as a self­de­struc­tively ad­dic­tive per­son­al­ity.

Ob­ses­sives: jour­nal­ists Jake Gyl­len­haal and Robert Downey Jr in Zo­diac

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