Image courtesy of www.impawards.com
Jake Gyllenhaal……….Robert Graysmith
Mark Ruffalo……….Inspector David Toschi
Anthony Edwards………. Inspector William Armstrong
Robert Downey Jr………..Paul Avery
Brian Cox……….Melvin Belli
John Carroll Lynch………. Arthur Leigh Allen
Jake Gyllenhaal has had a rise to stardom in a very unorthodox manner. First coming to the notice in the cult classic Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal has lost the sort of roles that went to Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio and helped galvanize both of their careers respectively. It’s only been recently that he’s been able to shake the role as being the guy to call if Tobey or Leo isn’t available, beating both of them out for the starring role in Jarhead as well as winning critical acclaim for roles in Proof and Brokeback Mountain. After an Oscar nomination for the latter, Gyllenhaal is at the point in his career where he could either join DiCaprio in the ranks of the best actors in Hollywood or go back into the pack of good actors that can’t seem to separate themselves from one another. Zodiac, then represents the crossroads of his career.
Gyllenhaal stars as Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist in San Francisco in the 1970s during the time of one of the most notorious unsolved murders of the period: the Zodiac killings. Taunting the police with letters and ciphers, the killer was never found despite an extensive manhunt and the case remains unsolved to this day. While Arthur Leigh Allen is still considered the likely man to do it, his heart attack would end both his life and the San Francisco Police Department’s chance at proving him guilty. It remains, however, a fascinating case as Graysmith would go on to publish several best-selling books about the killer as well as several other true-crime novels. His novels would provide the inspiration for 2002’s Auto Focus, about the death of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane.
And for the first 90 minutes, Zodiac is a terse thriller that is stronger than any opening two acts released in the last year in the crime genre. The film is a finger-nail chewing, end of the seat type thriller as police detectives Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) assigned to the case try to solve the case while Graysmith watches as reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) covers the story. As the bodies pile up alongside the clues, it’s a veritable cat and mouse game between the police and the killer, as he taunts them mercilessly with letters filled with clues and threats to school children, et al. As Toschi and Armonstrong go through suspects and crime scenes, it’s tense as everyone wants the killer captured. As the investigation goes nowhere, with each suspect being cleared by a variety of evidence, the film gets incredibly tense for those in it.
And the cast is well-suited for the task. While no one is really considered a top notch actor besides Gyllenhaal, and even that status is dubious, Fincher has put together a cast well-suited for the job. Ruffalo and Edwards carry the film early on with their chemistry together; Toschi’s obsession with Animal Crackers, for example, becomes a good character revealing moment in the film towards the end. They have a strong chemistry together that strengthens the chase of the killer; they want to get him so badly we can feel it and empathize with them. Gyllenhaal and Downey Jr. strengthen up the cast as well, bringing solid performances in roles that require it. Gyllenhaal doesn’t stand out in the sort of breath-taking performance that can carry a film, and that hurts in the film’s final act when the spotlight is solely on him, but he carries himself admirably in the film throughout. This may not be something that wins him awards, for sure, but its something that is a bright spot on his resume.
But as the case winds down and the focus of the police go away from the Zodiac killer, so does the film’s focus and as such the film drags a bit for the last 60 minutes. Going for a 150 minute epic crime film is a bit ambitious for David Fincher, as it takes a lot in both story and style to sustain that sort of length, but when the focus goes solely to Graysmith the film’s focus and gripping manner go with it. While the last 60 minutes are better than what most crime thrillers have done in their final acts, it’s a major letdown because the first 90 are so incredibly strong. Some stronger editing and pacing in the final act would make the film nearly perfect, as it is Zodiac a very good one.
FINAL RATING (ON A SCALE OF 1-5 BUCKETS):