You might have noticed a resurgence of good ink for last year’s film “ZODIAC” (David Fincher) amid the flurry of year-end lists and pre-Oscar baiting. Was this film, one that got such mediocre reviews upon its release, one of those rare gems that needed a little critical marinating or a DVD release before its true genius could be seen? I decided to rent the DVD and find out. Now I grew up near the San Francisco Bay Area during the time the case of the Zodiac killer was on the front pages, though I “missed” the initial wave of killings in 1969, being 2 years old at the time. I remember the taunting letters to the police, Herb Caen writing about it in his daily San Francisco Chronicle column, and of course that ultra-cool target symbol that the maniac behind the murders punctuated all his letters with. I had read that this film focused more on how the cops bungled the case, and that’s pretty much true, along with a large focus on a third-party SF Chronicle cartoonist’s obsessive, played by the boyish (and strangely unaged over 12 years) Jake Gyllenhaal, desire to solve the case himself. Could be the makings of a good film, no? Too bad it wasn’t.
My complaints with the film are broad but few. First, each character is rushed so thoroughly into development that one barely has a chance to know or understand them – this despite a Herculean running length much closer to 3 hours than 2. Gyllenhaal, who looks like he should be playing a high school quarterback rather than a grizzled father of two, is an obsessive Type-A, OK, got it – but why? And how could – and why would - someone keep up that manic weirdo energy throughout an entire life, let alone a single film? Totally unbelievable, as it the greatly overrated Robert Downey, Jr.’s alcoholic newspaper reporter, the guy who initially covers (and owns) the Zodiac beat as the ghastly crimes are unfolding. Second, and I admit that Danny Plotnick gave me this observation in person as I was complaining to him about the film – one at times gets caught up in the history of the Zodiac killings, and in the filmmaker’s excited postulation as to who the killer really was, and yet it’s all delivered so ham-handedly and quickly that Fincher might well have used his energies to make a kick-ass documentary rather than a barely mediocre drama. It’s as if a documentary was what he really wanted to make all along, but his past Hollywood success (“Fight Club”, anyone?) prevented him from doing so, so an all-star cast was signed up and fragments of what could have been a great movie were stitched together to ill effect.
Finally, as a San Francisco resident, I’m lightly appalled at the poor use of my city’s scenery and topography as a key plot device. If this was filmed in Vancouver, Toronto or on an LA soundstage, I’d be none the wiser, and yet these killings – in fact the whole craziness of the 1970s – are so inextricably tied to San Francisco and Northern California (think Patty Hearst and the SLA, the Weather Underground, both attempts on President Ford’s life, the Zebra killer, the George Moscone/Harvey Milk murders, People’s Temple etc etc.). Why couldn’t the city – outside of mock-ups of 1970s-era Chronicle typefaces – have figured more prominently? A tale of the berzerkness of 1970s San Francisco and how it fed the way the Zodiac murders were reacted to and pursued could have made for a great film. I guess we’ll have to wait for that documentary, hunh?
Celluloid Hut Rating: C-.