You’re not going to see Zodiac because you’re expecting an Oscar-winner, right? You just want to see Jake Gyllenhaal, or maybe just because it’s about real events that happened in the Bay Area. If that’s the case, then you’re in luck: while the movie isn’t a gripping thriller, it’s a solid enough way to spend your time, especially for a chunk of Bay Area history.
Zodiac is based on the true story of a serial killer who terrorized the Bay Area throughout the ’60s and ’70s. After the killings, he sent coded messages to Bay Area newspapers with letters taunting the police for being unable to find him and threatened to kill more unless they printed his ciphers. He signed his messages, “Zodiac.”
The movie is a lightly fictionalized account of the case’s beginning and progress, following four characters as they attempt to untangle the evidence and identify the killer: San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and Homicide Inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).
The film’s main weakness is the lack of a clear resolution, something that it has little control over. Since the viewer follows the characters as they attempt to solve this case and information is revealed to the viewer as it is revealed to the characters, the viewer is never able to put together any of the clues. The narrative seems to drift at times as the characters follow one lead after another and may leave the viewer feeling unable to really connect with the story, particularly in the case of young viewers who don’t know or remember the actual events. Furthermore, the film takes place over the course of nearly a decade, and the leaps in time-some of which span years-may be confusing to the viewer.
Long-time Bay Area residents will appreciate the sense of location, though, and may wish to see the movie just for the sense of nostalgic glory. Shots of the decades-ago Ferry Building show the now-defunct Embarcadero Freeway, and viewers are treated to a marvelous shot of the Transamerica Pyramid’s construction.
The story picks up in the last hour or so, when it narrows to focus solely on Graysmith, author of the book on which the film was based, as he begins his in-depth research. The leaps in time all but stop, and the audience is given one character to focus on. Gyllenhaal delivers a solid performance as the straight-laced, clean-living cartoonist becomes so deeply obsessed in the Zodiac case that it consumes his life.
Downey and Ruffalo also deserve nods for their performances in this film. Downey makes the the dry, irreverant Avery instantly likable from his very first appearance, has some of the most winning lines in the film, and steals nearly every scene he’s in. Ruffalo, meanwhile, delivers an intense and believable performance as the tenacious detective Toschi, who wants Zodiac so badly that he’s willing to work with a newspaper cartoonist to get him.
Overall, the movie is no winner, but it is an enjoyable way to spend your time and money. See it if you have ten bucks to spare and a weakness for cold cases. Or Bay Area history. Or Jake Gyllenhaal.