"Zodiac" is both a frightening true story of a California serial killer who called himself Zodiac - and an unexpectedly bizarre film by David Fincher, who made the horror film "Seven" some years ago. It's an incomplete story, in the sense that the case - the true case on which the film is based - was never solved in any legal sense. And it's a bizarre film because Fincher has given us a protagonist whom you have to describe as having Asperger's Syndrome - I'll get to that in a minute.
In 1968 and 1969 a man who ultimately came to call himself Zodiac committed brutal and unmotivated murders in rural areas of northern California. Then he moved his killing to San Francisco, where he shot a cabbie to death. He began sending the San Francisco Chronicle strange cryptograms that were finally decoded and revealed his love of killing and his love of taunting the authorities - for example, he promised to shoot out the tire of a school bus and then kill the children as they left the bus - something that in fact he never did do.
In the film we learn all this through following three men who devoted years to trying to find the Zodiac killer - one is a San Francisco police inspector, Dave Toschi, played by Mark Ruffalo, the second is the Chronicle's crime reporter, Paul Avery, played by Robert Downey Jr., and the third is the paper's cartoonist, Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. It's Gyllenhaal whom I see as the Asperger's victim, because in the film he is compelled by his own demons to examine every bit of minutiae that connects to the case, even at the cost of his job, his marriage and any kind of life outside of Zodiac. And while it may be true that the real Graysmith, who in fact wrote two books about Zodiac, is an Asperger's victim, director Fincher has given us no dramatic reason in the film to make Gyllenhaal one as well. And so the film's Graysmith simply comes across as, well, mighty strange and unmotivated in his actions. Gyllenhaal plays him as a man who's always a beat behind; there's an uncomfortable moment's pause before every line he speaks that's just enough to jar us away from the action on screen. And try as I might I couldn't find any dramatic reason in the film for that choice of persona.
In any case, the film follows the story up through 1991; a likely Zodiac suspect is in fact identified early on, but no hard evidence is ever produced that would lead to an arrest. We think we know, as do the film's protagonists, just who Zodiac is, but neither they nor we can have the satisfaction of seeing closure here. I appreciate Fincher's honesty in keeping to the facts, but without a dramatic arc the film keeps on repeating itself and then dissolves by ending with printed updates on the screen.
Fincher has used a documentary approach, with dates and times supered over the action, and the cast is fine. John Carroll Lynch, who plays the presumed suspect, is constantly fascinating. Mark Ruffalo finally has a take-charge role and does very well, as does Robert Downey Jr., whose smart-alec persona is fueled by liquor and cocaine. Gyllenhaal, I think, has made a bad mistake by making himself so needlessly difficult and unlikeable, but maybe it was done at Fincher's insistence. We may never know.