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Zodiac (3/10)

by Tony Medley

How long would it have taken Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca” 1942) or John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon” 1941) or Fred Zinnemann (“From Here to Eternity” 1953) to make a film about a serial killer who was never discovered? Curtiz brought “Casablanca in at 102 minutes; Huston made “Falcon” in 101 minutes and Zinnemann only took 118 minutes to tell the story of James Jones’ huge novel. Why, then, should it take director David Fincher 160 very long minutes to tell the true story of the unsolved murders of the person who called himself “Zodiac” starting in 1969, killing at least 12 people in what seemed to be a random manner?

Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a newspaper cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the case. Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is the policeman with the primary responsibility for finding Zodiac. Toschi became such a celebrity that many movie heroes, like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Michael Douglas’s character in the TV series “Streets of San Francisco” were based on him. Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a drug-addled reporter who seems to have no purpose to the case or to the story. But you have to remember that this movie is based on two books written by Graysmith, so he comes out as the hero. Even so, Downey’s performance as Avery is a great disappointment, given his acknowledged talent.

This movie just goes on and on and on. It’s not particularly scary, even though one would think that showing a serial killer killing innocent people on a whim could be enormously frightening. But the fear just doesn’t come through. Hithchcock could create tension just by showing a building, or a person’s face. In stark contrast, the only time Fincher creates any tension whatsoever is when Graysmith goes into the cellar with someone the audience has been led to believe is Zodiac.

This is the second movie I’ve seen in two years based on the Zodiac killings. While the fact of the killings is awful, Fincher isn’t any better at capturing tension in this story than was Alexander Bulkley, who directed “The Zodiac” in 2006. In fact, Bulkley’s depiction of the killer and his murders was more frightening and memorable than what Fincher creates.

I went into this film thinking it was going to be an investigative masterpiece, à la “All The President’s Men” (1976). Alas, it lacks the touch of director Alan Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman. James Vanderbilt’s script is not only too long and too talky, it is terribly convoluted with constant references to people who only appear onscreen a few times. The film lasts so long the mind wanders. It takes a prodigious feat of memory to remember who’s who. In fact, when it finally came plodding down to the ending, I really couldn’t figure out who it was that they were actually fingering as Zodiac. The guy barely appeared in the film at all. Two hours forty minutes, and if you blink you miss the guy they blame for the killings. And after all that you still don’t know for sure whodunit.

March 2, 2007