David Fincher is widely considered one of Hollywood's most inventive directors of suspense films. Partly that's because of the stylized visuals he brought with him from the world of music videos. Partly it's because of the violent subject matter in his films: "Seven," "Fight Club," and "Panic Room." Bob Mondello has a review of his new movie "Zodiac." It's based on a real serial killer in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1970s.
BOB MONDELLO: After a murder on lover's lane gets "Zodiac" off to a pulse-pounding start, David Fincher's camera takes us on a tour, not of the crime scene, nor of the police investigation, but of the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle on August 1, 1969. It is not an aimless tour. The camera is charting the arrival that day of a letter with a symbol where the return address should be.
A letter that claims credit for the murder we've just seen, as well as another one offering details and demanding front page play for a weird cipher, a coded message to prevent further deaths. The Chronicle's crime reporter, Paul Avery, makes a phone call to the police.
(Soundbite of movie, "Zodiac")
Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY JR. (Actor): (As Paul Avery) I just want to check if you have an unsolved crime related homicide on Christmas, and maybe one on July 4th?
Unidentified Man #1: It is going to.
Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Paul Avery) Confirmed. VPD confirmed the shootings. Al's on the phone with the examiner, they got the same letter with a different code.
Unidentified Man #1: So did Times-Herald.
Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Paul Avery) Christmas, two teenagers on Lover's Lane, both DOA - David Faraday and Betty Jensen. July 4th, Darlene Farrin and Michael Mag - I think it's Mageau. Anyway, he lived, she didn't.
MONDELLO: The killer would soon be known as the Zodiac, and though all of the newspapers give him coverage, he kills again and again, each time sending more ciphers - ones that intrigued the papers cartoonist, Robert Graysmith, who hovers around the reporter's desk, deciphering and offering explanations he's gleaned at the library.
(Soundbite of movie, "Zodiac")
Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL (Actor): (As Robert Graysmith) In this book you ought to present a very simple substitution code in the preface. Eight of the 26 symbols that he suggests, are found in the cipher.
Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Paul Avery) But there are non-letter symbols, because there's all these medieval ones.
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) I thought they looked medieval, too. But then I found out a code written in the Middle Ages. Guess what it's called? The Zodiac alphabet.
MONDELLO: Now, if you think you detect something a little obsessive about this cartoonist, you're getting the film's drift. The real Robert Graysmith got so caught up in the Zodiac murders that he quit cartooning to write the two books that this movie is based on. And his onscreen alter ego, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, seems to so tightly-wound that the filmmakers thought it worth noting at the end, that the real guy now has a healthy relationship with his children, a character reference you won't find in most films.
Obsession is the movie's theme, a driving force for the killer, the guy is trying to catch him, and of course, for the filmmaker, who is nothing if not a stickler for detail. In his earlier pictures, he amped up the emotions, as he went for your jugular. Here he's all about what the police think they know and why they think they know it: evidence, procedure, reconstruction at the crime scene.
Mr. ANTHONY EDWARDS (Actor): (as Inspector William Armstrong) Why did he get in the front seat?
Mr. MARK RUFALLO (Actor): (as Inspector David Toschi) For the money.
Mr. EDWARDS: (as Inspector William Armstrong) But he's dead. He could just reach over the seat, pull out his wallet - you don't have to go anywhere near the blood. So why'd he get in the front seat?
Mr. RUFALLO: (as Inspector David Toschi) I'm an idiot.
Mr. EDWARDS: (as Inspector William Armstrong) But you're not an idiot. (Unintelligible) put it in park.
MONDELLO: Fincher is so good at keeping info-crammed dialogue crackling that a whole raft of really smart actors have signed on to work with him. Mark Rufallo, and Anthony Edwards in that scene. Robert Downey Jr. making boozy paranoia look alarmingly lived in elsewhere. Brian Cox hamming it up as showboat lawyer Melvin Belli. All of them sharp and period perfect in a film that doesn't just get the '70s cars and sideburns right, but it actually brings back the style of '70s detective flicks.
No tidy last minute plot twists to make you feel good in David Fincher's "Zodiac," just focus to keep an audience focused and the most disciplined filmmaking you've seen in forever.
I'm Bob Mondello.
(Soundbite of music)
NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.