Directed by David Fincher
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 162 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Release Date: January 8, 2008
Review Date: December 29, 2007
David Fincher has taken an almost docudrama approach in directing the murders and subsequent investigation into the San Francisco Zodiac killings in this new director’s cut release of Zodiac. A completely compelling crime procedural featuring a sterling cast of actors and an uncannily accurate depiction of a period more than thirty years ago, Zodiac is one of 2007’s best films. The new director’s cut adds about six minutes of footage to the already released-on-DVD movie, but even at this more advanced running time, the film is so absorbing that it doesn’t feel nearly as long as it is. The gripping investigation which takes many twists and turns and hits dead ends only to be resuscitated repeatedly by a plucky journalist is riveting.
Two detectives and two employees of the San Francisco Chronicle become entrenched in the investigation of a series of murders in the San Francisco area in 1969. Detectives David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) along with intrepid maverick Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) are the individuals hottest on the trail of the mysterious killer who uses both guns and knives and begins communicating with the police and newspapers through letters to them and enclosing a series of ciphers which catch the attention of Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Without the detailed forensics help that today’s crime fighters have at their disposal, the police piece together small fragments of evidence that lead them eventually to a suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), but without enough strong evidence to obtain a search warrant, they’re powerless to investigate further. Only after three years do they compile enough information for a judge to grant them entry into Allen’s trailer, and there the trail hits a dead end.
James Vanderbilt’s superb screenplay depicts only three murders which the filmmakers seem reasonably sure were committed by the Zodiac killer (other crimes he took credit for at the time are disputed by the facts), but so wonderfully written is this script that the viewer who may not know all the intricacies of the case is constantly on the edge of his seat in anticipation of another hideous murder. The suspense is terrifically taut as the years pass and new leads come to the attention of the police and to Graysmith who by now has become totally obsessed with the case. However, one of the most admirable qualities of Zodiac is not merely in examining the minutiae of the investigation but the notation of the toll that the investigation takes on each of the primary investigators over the years. By the time we get to the final confrontation in 1991, we feel we have aged right along with the men involved in the story. All have been put through the proverbial ringer.
Fincher’s outstanding direction is no surprise having helmed some of the most suspenseful and mesmerizing movies made in the last twenty years (Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room). The search of Allen’s trailer (I was honestly expecting a bomb to go off) and a journey late in the film into the basement of an oddly peculiar film buff are gut-wrenching experiences as are the reenactments of the three murders which are graphic but not shattering. Fincher’s innate good taste finds that perfect balance between the grotesque and the real.
And what a superlative cast he’s rounded up for these juicy roles! Jake Gyllenhaal is the very model of an Eagle Scout as the driven Graysmith. What better inspectors could there be than Anthony Edwards, Mark Ruffalo, and Elias Koteas (as the Vallejo police captain)? Robert Downey, Jr. steals all of his scenes as the gonzo journalist who allows Graysmith to work with him on the investigation, and Brian Cox as the egotistical and flamboyant lawyer Melvin Belli who gets swept early into the case is spot-on.
Zodiac is another of those crime dramas which benefits from repeated viewings. The director’s cut, which adds a few extra scenes that flesh out motivations or professional relationships of the main characters, is well worth investigating.
The film’s 2.39:1 aspect ratio is presented here in a quality anamorphic transfer. To set the time period, Fincher has given the film a modified antique look by slightly desaturating the color and washing it ever so slightly in light brown. Sharpness is very good with excellent black levels and shadow detail that is impressive, aiding greatly in the moodiness of some of the film’s most tension-filled scenes. The film has been divided into 36 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track features a good spread across the front channels and intelligent though infrequent use of the rears. There is occasional rumbling in the LFE channel to establish greater tension and impending danger, but again, the subwoofer doesn’t get as much of a workout as it might have had.
Two audio commentaries are offered on this new edition of Zodiac. In the first, director David Fincher discusses making the film in all of its aspects from casting through filming techniques and locations in a complete discussion with only the occasional quiet patch. Producer Brad Fischer, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and author James Ellroy have a lively, laugh-filled (and profanity-laced) conversation about the film and the case with occasional comments from actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr. intercut into the conversation. There are also some places where the conversation dies down, and the men’s enthusiasm for talking seems to wind down as the film runs on.
All of the documentaries and features on disc two are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
“Zodiac Deciphered” is a very thorough 53½-minute documentary on the making of the movie divided into seven sections covering the major locations used in the filming, and containing discussions with the director, costume designer, set decorator, prop master, leading actors, and the real-life David Toschi and Robert Highsmith.
“The Visual Effects of Zodiac” gives background on the 90 visual effects shots used in the picture including examples of how blood spray during the murders was done, how blue screen was used, how today’s San Francisco was remade to look like the city of thirty-five years ago, how overhead shots were accomplished without helicopters, and how the transformation of the Transamerica building was done. This feature runs 15 minutes.
“Previsualization” is an interesting 6-minute split screen look at the use of CGI animation in planning the three murder sequences shown in the film.
The original theatrical trailer for the film runs 2½ minutes.
By far the longest and most exhaustive documentary on disc two is a 100-minute feature called This is the Zodiac. Compiled of video interviews with all of the surviving investigators, witnesses, attack survivors, and suspects, this very intriguing bonus digs ever-deeper into the complexities of the Zodiac case.
“Prime Suspect: His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen” delves into the life of chief suspect Arthur Leigh Allen with interviews from those who knew him, interviewed him, or briefly met him. By the end of this 41½-minute feature, you may find the quandary of the Zodiac’s identity is still frustratingly present.
Zodiac is most definitely one of the best films of 2007. This new director’s cut edition which provides absolutely riveting information on the making of the film but more importantly from the actual people who lived through the case in real life makes this the preferred edition of the film to own. This is one time when a double dip is really worth the money.