Film Review: Zodiac (15)

A star-crossed thriller
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Detectives hunting serial killers - Hollywood detectives, that is, hunting Hollywood serial killers - inevitably discover that they have more in common with their quarry than they'd like to admit. So Clarice becomes fascinated by Dr Lecter, and Brad Pitt, having tracked Kevin Spacey through murders incorporating six of the deadly sins, succumbs to the seventh, anger.

A pleasing aspect of Zodiac, and one surely related to the fact that it is based on fact rather than a screenwriter's lurid imaginings, is that there is no such symmetry. The cops hunting the killer (principally, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) are bureaucrats, professional, intelligent, outraged, patient and, most unusual, gentle. No, the symmetry on show here is between the killer and the journalists writing about him. The Zodiac killer murdered at least five people in the San Francisco Bay area, between December 1968 and October 1969 - first attacking young lovers in secluded spots, then shooting a cab driver in town. Over the next five years, in taunting letters sent to the local press, he claimed to have killed 30 more; he was never caught, and the chief suspect died of a heart attack years later, shortly before charges were to be brought. The letters were sometimes accompanied with souvenirs from his victims, such as a piece of blood-soaked cloth, and sometimes with elaborately enciphered messages. The effect was to multiply enormously the panic the killings themselves inspired.

Here you have the symmetry: killer and reporters both want to get their bylines on to the front page; they're both in a business where publicity is everything.

But Zodiac also suggests, unwittingly I presume, another resemblance: isn't a serial killer a bit like a film director? Or rather, because the generalisation can't be sustained, isn't this kind of serial killer a bit like this kind of film director - laying clues, misdirecting attention, thriving on the creation of anxiety? Looked at in this light, Zodiac could be seen as something approaching a hommage from a director who made his name with a film, Se7en, that followed a template that the Zodiac killer laid down.

That makes it sound like a nasty enterprise, though, and one of the first things to say about Zodiac is that, as serial-killer movies go, it is surprisingly likeable. Serial killers are, to my mind, some of the least interesting people on earth. There are those who argue that they show us humanity's dark side, that they have more in common with the rest of us than we like to think. But surely they show us what people are like with all humanity stripped out - that what makes them murderers is precisely what they don't have in common with everyone else. So, as a rule, and because I'm squeamish, I don't enjoy serial-killer films one bit.

Here, though, the sadism Fincher displayed in Se7en and Fight Club is muffled (after all, to make the deaths bloodless and painless would show a lack of respect for the victims). As well as this negative virtue, there are several positive reasons for liking the film: Seventies styles - the sideburns, the flares, the boxy cars - are captured without stylisation. The soundtrack is clever: unobvious period hits (Donovan, singing "Hurdy Gurdy Man", gains a sinister resonance that can only work in its favour) and sly classical references (that melancholy trumpet solo popping up from time to time is Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question"). And Fincher pitches in some quirky, unnerving touches: at the scene of the first murder we see, geese scurry across the camera, while a search of the main suspect's trailer reveals that it is full of chittering squirrels - even the fridge, though these have ceased to chitter. This conveys subtly that the killings have more to do with the animal kingdom than with anything human.

The film also offers a batch of hugely enjoyable performances. Some are credible: Ruffalo's bow-tied policeman is a believable combination of innocence and intelligence; and there are cameos from Elias Koteas and Zach Grenier, two actors with monumental bone structures, as officers in neighbouring jurisdictions (one reason Zodiac wasn't caught being that evidence fell down the cracks between investigations).

Much of the action takes place at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, where Robert Downey Jr plays - well, essentially, Robert Downey Jr. He makes Paul Avery, ace crime reporter, an imperious, addiction-prone egomaniac (the Vandyke beard and the waistcoat may be taken from life). I'm not sure I swallowed it, but it was fun. And Brian Cox has a ball as an egotistical lawyer picked by the killer as a mouthpiece.

But the film revolves around Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist with a taste for puzzles who became interested in the case - two books he wrote about it were the basis for the script. In the first half of the film, when his obsession tags along with the police's official investigation and Avery's more pointed research, he is a useful foil and focus; but in the second half, as the investigation loses momentum, Graysmith's supposed obsession becomes the main motivating factor. Here the trouble begins.

Part of the problem lies in the story itself: there seems to be no objective reason why Graysmith should be so fascinated by the case, or why we should take his fascination seriously. A cartoonist? Who likes to do puzzles? Yeah, right. Fincher tries to repair this by giving us the familiar apparatus of obsession: his wife (a grievously under-used Chloë Sevigny) starts to look at him stonily - when he announces to the world that he is writing a book about Zodiac, and they start getting anonymous phone-calls, she takes the not unreasonable view that he's putting his hobby ahead of the family. Next, his hair and clothes get messier. At one point - the couple are separated by now - Sevigny finds him half-starved and filthy, squatting among books on ciphers and killing, with notes and cuttings pinned on the walls. He phones detectives, even arrives at their homes in the middle of the night, and ends up hammering on the doors of police stations after they have closed, desperate to find the file that will give up the essential clue.

The net result of this is that he unmasks as the Zodiac killer - ta-dah! - the suspect the police have been after all along. This in itself would take a lot of the wind out of the preceding couple of hours, if it hadn't mostly been taken out by Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal has many gifts, but the ability to embody obsession turns out not to be one of them. At no point does the sheer geekiness, the neediness to know, come across. With him as its hollow centre, the film collapses in on itself. To start with a murder and end with a shrug seems somehow indecent.