Zodiac

So for this one, I did a little research. There were two things involved in this film that I really didn't know anything about: the real-life Zodiac killings, and Jake Gyllenhaal. I'd heard of both, but really couldn't pick either one out of a line-up, so to speak. I wasn't even born when the killings began, and (like just about everyone else I know), my history class in school barely made it up to World War II, so my knowledge of anything after the Battle of Britain is a little shaky. I'm not sure we would have covered serial killers anyway.

A quick check of Jake's career revealed that I hadn't seen him in a movie since his debut in City Slickers at age ten, so I still didn't know if I'd like seeing him as the star of a major motion picture. (No, I haven't seen Brokeback Mountain. Yes, I know it won three Oscars.) As it happens, I still don't quite know what he's like as the star, because he isn't, really. He doesn't start carrying the picture until the last forty minutes or so. The rest is all Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as the police detectives in charge of the case, and the scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr. playing Paul Avery, a crime reporter who drinks too much, smokes too much, and does all the other bad things you expect from one of Robert's characters. He also (at least at the beginning) looks like he's in search of a trendy coffeehouse where he can recite his latest poetry.

For those of you as clueless about the Zodiac killer as I was, here's the summary: in 1969, three northern California newspapers received letters from a man claiming responsibility for three murders and one near miss in the area. Also included was a cryptogram which supposedly contained his identity, though of course it didn't or we wouldn't have this movie now. It was mainly badly-spelled rantings about why he was killing people, but it was scary enough. The media focused its attention, and a new serial killer was born. Read all about it here.

Jake plays Robert Graysmith, the political cartoonist for the San Fransisco Chronicle when the whole mess began. Graysmith's 1986 book Zodiac was the basis for this film, and considering how much of this movie shows Graysmith staring wide-eyed, looking like a lost, hopelessly confused puppy, I'm faintly surprised he wrote a book about anything. But he likes cryptograms, and forms a slightly awkward friendship with Avery over this, and slowly, Graysmith's interest in the Zodiac morphs into obsession.

Being based pretty closely on real life, I was expecting that the film wouldn't feel polished, but it was still jarring at times. You're going to get sick to death of captions that say things like, "2 1/2 weeks later, Vallejo, California", for instance. Leads are discovered, sound promising, and then vanish at breakneck speed without being resolved one way or another. That must be how real investigations go all the time, but I don't pay to watch them. On the other hand, the film does do a nice job of showing how the case affects all those involved. Graysmith and Avery lose the most -- the former a marriage and (I think) a job; the latter quits his job and eventually smokes himself to death. There's nothing like watching Robert Downey Jr. sitting in a bar, alternating puffs of his cigarette with breaths from his oxygen tank.

All in all it was a fun ride, and I give it three and three-quarter idols. The acting is uniformly top-notch, the story moves along at a good pace and keeps the audience's interest, and movie fans like myself will have the added bonus of spotting all the classic movie posters around. I'm also always glad to see Brian Cox, here playing flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli and having a great time doing it; and there's a fun cameo by Clea DuVall, who I really miss seeing on Heroes. One warning, though: the ending is tantalizingly ambigous, so if not knowing drives you crazy, watch out. Just like real life, there's no pat solution.

Image: 
Cryptogram described by a random person as "not looking very Christian".

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