Zodiac ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

"There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer."

The grainy crackle of two vintage, late 60's studio logos set the retro-stage, before the soothing sounds of Three Dog Night's "Easy To Be Hard" begins to play against the spectacular sight of the San Francisco skyline on the 4th Of July, 1969, as the fireworks illuminate the looming silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a young surburban couple head out on an impromptu date to their local lover's lane, creating a seemingly perfect portrait of vintage, picket-fenced Americana.

However, this picture is soon shattered by the glare of another car's headlights idling menacingly behind them, before that glare is replaced by that of a flashlight as an unseen assailant gets out and approaches them, the light piercing through the darkness as a relentless stream of bullets from a gun similarly pierces the victims, their blood splattering all over the car in a sickening slow motion. Moments later, as a patrolman responds to this horrific scene, we hear an eerie male voice call the local 911 and say "I wanna report a murder. No... a double murder. If you go one mile east on Columbus Parkway, to a public park, you'll find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a 9mm Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Good... bye", before he abruptly hangs up, ending the call just as suddenly as he did the lives of his victims.

This is the opening scene of David Fincher's Zodiac, a perfectly jarring introduction to this bloody chapter of Northern California history, in a film that's a superb addition to the serial killer/procedural sub-genre, and one of the best films of the 2000's, as well as the iconic auteur's best work to date, as far as I'm concerned.

Obviously, it tells the true story of the titular serial killer who terrorizied the Bay Area with a string of grisly shootings & stabbings back in the 60's, but, while Zodiac certainly isn't the first serial killer procedural ever made, it's the particular way that Fincher tells this tale that makes it special, as he juggles a multitude of story threads and perspectives throughout the tangled case, going back and forth between the police investigation, various minor characters, and the journalists of The San Francisco Chronicle, who share an unusually close relationship to the killer, as he periodically pens multiple taunting letters to the paper, manipulating them like puppets to feed his own appetite for mass media attention, with this aspect sort of making Zodiac feel like if the newsroom scenes in All The President's Men were occasionally interspersed with scenes of grimly horrifying murders, the omnipresent ringing of rotary phones in the background giving way to the piercing sounds of the victims' screams.

But despite these grisly setpieces, Zodiac isn't a work of crass exploitation, but a sharp, methodical procedural at its core, as Fincher takes the same basic subject matter of his breakthrough (if somewhat overrated) work Se7en, and directs it in a less sensationalized, more mature manner, as he knows exactly when to get "flashy" with his style here (like a spectacular overhead tracking shot from the heavens of a taxi weaving its way through the San Fran streets), and when to hang back and just let the story speak for itself, as the propulsive pacing, sudden timeline jumps, and rapid-fire bursts of exposition of the first half give way to Robert Graysmith's under the table, one-man investigation in the second.

Jake Gyllenhaal puts in a perfectly-cast performance as the hopelessly bookish, perpetually unrespected cartoonist, who goes from being an often-dismissed bystander that occasionally contributes a tiny bit to the case, to the only person keeping the hunt for the Zodiac alive, which contrasts nicely with the fall of crime reporter Paul Avery (also perfectly played by Robert Downey Jr., in a somewhat autobiographical role), the man who seems like he should be the "star" of the case, until his various self-destructive tendencies prove to be his downfall, even as he's imbued with plenty of quippy, rock star charisma courtesy of RDJ, to the point that it's baffling to think there was ever a time when he wasn't one of the world's biggest movie stars.

However, the film's focus in its 2nd half smartly remains on Graysmith and his futile, seemingly endless journey into a (sometimes literal) underworld of endless, labyrinthine deadends, and even when Graysmith does seem to make progress, his marriage is still crumbling underneath the crushing weight of his Quixotic obsession with the case, which hits home even closer than before when it seems as though the anonymous killer has begun targeting Graysmith himself with a series of unnerving calls to his home, the same one where his wife and children live, unaware of the threat he has invited into their midst.

However, even when those calls come to a suspiciously convenient end with the death of the primary suspect in the case, his death still not only robs us of a sense of justice, as he dies of a heart attack before he could be arrested, but we also learn that his DNA was a mismatch for the real killer's, robbing us even of a sense of finality, as we're left with the sobering, haunting possibility at the end of the film that the "Hurdy Gurdy Man" could still be out there, just waiting to sing his songs of murder again someday, somewhere.

Final Score: 9

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