David Fincher proves that you don't need resolution to make a compelling serial killer movie. He has come up with the perfect way to handle a messy case, transitioning from the whodunit of the Zodiac killer into the effect the case had on the protagonists' lives.
Movie Review: Zodiac
The investigation is CSI in the '70s. It's frustrating without the technology to tell them exactly what happened.
The time frame is never a problem. Though it covers a decade, screen IDs tell us the time elapsed between events, but the story flows completely. You note the time for record keeping purposes, but never feel like you've jumped in the story.
Fincher creates the mood right with sound, visual shots and period references that are never kitschy. Hearing about smoking in the rear of an airplane is true to the time. The Slinky commercial and Star Trek references may be pushing it, but Trek was relevant to a participant and there had to be something on TV. A lot of minor characters, from witnesses to waiters, are kept off camera, forcing us to focus on the main story points.
It looks like period San Francisco, not that I'd know from back then, but they have long tracking shots in cars that never slip up and give away a modern detail.
The scenes of the killings are unsettling. The film gives us subtle identification with the victims through conversation and little details. It's not begging us to feel for them, because it doesn't have to. It just tells the truth.
The more it gets into the characters' stories, they start to build the obsession in the audience too. It begins with just teaching us the key to the Zodiac ciphers. By the time the case has dried up, we're right with the characters looking for any lead possible.
This is when the film doesn't quite hold together as well, though it could be argued that this is exactly when the true life story starts to fall apart. The film resorts to having some characters state their obsessions, like, "I just wish I could know…" That's really unnecessary. The observation that, at a certain point, the Zodiac hasn't killed nearly as many as other causes, is well taken.
When Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues new leads, it really does reinvigorate the film. Watching his family fall apart is old hat for obsessive cop movies, but his search makes us feel like we may reach a conclusion, even though we know we won't. Following the weirdo into the basement is a questionable cinematic convention, but I guess if the real Graysmith did it…
Zodiac is a gripping movie that does not feel as long as it is. There are a few moments they could have consolidated, but we're talking going from Pulp Fiction length to Shawshank Redemption.