David Fincher's intricate sense of presenting the unknown in enchanting fashion once again comes to prominence in this meticulous, rich and extremely comprehensive study of the Zodiac killer and the society he came from and subsequently left in his wake. The film has an amazing relevance as a social comment and in viewing the events in light of the time period(s) in question. Fincher skilfully and almost blatantly gives one of the most insightful comments on the development of the information age, and on the strengths and weaknesses of 1970s practices as opposed to current practices in both law enforcement in general, investigations in particular, as well as the different media desks and - perhaps most stunningly - the way the public react to potential dangers. Zodiac is executed with style and skill, and directed with flair and virtuosity.
We are taken to California anno 1969, centered in San Francisco and a few closely scattered small towns. It is the dawn of the serial killings that were to become known as the works of the Zodiac Killer - a figure that through his high-profile public "appearances" made him infamous and notorious beyond his actual works. In Zodiac, we meet just about every aspect of the investigation and the circumstances surrounding the Zodiac - all from a very factual point of view. Fincher rarely gets himself tangled in speculative theories beyond those which are generally accepted as very probable by most experts on the case. This gives the film an objectivity that it desperately needs taking the excessive running time and the talky nature into account, but it also allows the viewer to ponder the different options and theories by himself - because, reflecting the real situation in the case, very few definite conclusion are being made. Some might argue that this is what makes a film like this inconclusive and unsatisfactory, but in my opinion it makes it more real, less artificial, and more rewarding from an intellectual and academic point of view. Fincher presents a level of realism combined with a level of haunting imagery and contemporary detail that takes us right into the very core of the time and situations in question. There's nothing here that is merely scratched on the surface and then rushed away from.
Zodiac works on many levels, which is what justifies its excessive antics: (1) It has its share of suspenseful, brilliantly directed thriller scenes, some of which resembles something Jonathan Demme could have conducted. (2) It gives an intricate look into obsolete techniques and practices in both police work and the press. (3) It is a remarkable evocation of life in 60s and 70s California. And (4) it provides a probing study of a handful of very diverse characters. The final point is helped by a large (but, remarkably, quite unconfusing) cast filled with brilliant acting. Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo give among their best work ever, challenging their own characters as they go along, producing a remarkable development in them, whereas Robert Downey Jr. justifies that he was once considered one of Hollywood's brightest talents. All problems aside, here he is back to the sort of work he gave in Chaplin fifteen years ago. Together with fine supportive work by, in particular, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Philip Baker Hall, and a hilarious Patrick Scott Lewis, they give the film a spontaneity and a spirited nature that makes it arguably Fincher's best work from a dramatic point of view.