Zodiac: Director's Cut [DVD]
Director : David Fincher
Screenplay : James Vanderbilt (based on the book by Robert Graysmith)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector David Toschi), Anthony Edwards (Inspector William Armstrong), Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), John Carroll Lynch (Arthur Leigh Allen), Chloë Sevigny (Melanie), Elias Koteas (Sgt. Jack Mulanax), Dermot Mulroney (Captain Marty Lee), Philip Baker Hall (Sherwood Morril)
Note: The Director's Cut of Zodiac includes only a few minutes of additional footage and does not substantially change the film, thus my assessment of it is largely the same as the theatrical version.
Despite being a return to the serial killer film, the genre that first earned him recognition with 1995's brilliantly disturbing Seven, in Zodiac director David Fincher dials down the stylistic amplitude that has characterized his previous films and in the process cements his status as a filmmaker of much greater range than many of his critics have given him credit for. Zodiac is a profoundly unconventional thriller of great emotional weight and social tension. It is a strict police procedural that is also a compelling and unnerving portrait of obsessive and self-destructive behavior in the mad rush for “truth.”
As Zodiac is based on the nonfiction books by newspaper cartoonist-turned-amateur investigator Robert Graysmith, the film does supply what appears to be an answer at the end--in essence arguing that a particular suspect named Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) was, in fact, the Zodiac, a never-captured serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area with a killing spree in 1969 and 1970 and then taunted the newspapers and police with cryptic letters for the next decade. Yet, the feeling you are left with as the final credits role is one of complete uncertainty, if only because the man fingered by Graysmith was never formerly charged and convicted. Thus, if Allen was indeed the Zodiac, he escaped paying for his crimes (he died of a heart attack in the 1990s); if he wasn't, then the Zodiac could still be alive and well.
The narrative in Zodiac is almost dangerously inclusive, spanning decades and spending significant time with a wide range of characters involved in the case. There are several potential suspects, and the film covers the most well known aspects of the case history, including the five killings officially attributed to the Zodiac (which Fincher depicts in appropriately gruesome fashion), the many letters he sent that often included cryptograms supposedly containing his identity, and a live on-television phone call with prominent lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) that turned out to be a hoax.
For all practical purposes, the story focuses on three main characters who, at one point or another, looked into the case. The official San Francisco police detective put in charge of the investigation was David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who was already famous for having been the inspiration for Steve McQueen's iconic character in Bullitt (1968). However, the case is also the focus of San Francisco Chronicle crime writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), an alcoholic cynic who seems to be constantly on the edge of breakdown. Unofficially, the case is closely monitored by Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who at the time was a political cartoonist for the Chronicle and is presented as Avery's polar opposite (at one point he is actually described as a “Boy Scout”).
Fincher presents the copious amounts of dense material that comprise the film's narrative in a decidedly straightforward fashion with only minimal stylistic flourishes (the first murder, for example, is depicted in highly stylized slow motion, whereas the brutal knifing of a young couple by Lake Berryessa is depicted in shocking real time). Much of the film is consumed with characters talking--often going over details of the case and discussing theories and motives--but Fincher is confident enough in the inherent intrigue generated by all this dialogue that he doesn't feel the need to dress it up in superfluous style.
Part of what keeps Zodiac so buoyant is the interactions of the characters themselves, for example, the amusing disparity between the cynical Avery and the idealistic Graysmith (the film's funniest visual gag involves Graysmith turning Avery on to an effete blue drink at a bar). Less successful is the depiction of Graysmith's crumbling marriage, which is central to the film's focus on obsessive behavior, but doesn't quite cohere because his wife Melanie (Chloë Sevigny) is given virtually no screen time; thus, she becomes little more than a cardboard symbol for Graysmith's sacrifices to solve the case (Fincher had to cut about half an hour from the film to appease the studios, and I wonder how much of that footage involved Melanie).
Zodiac is never anything less than completely enthralling, which may surprise those who realize that, after the hour mark, there will not be another murder committed by the Zodiac and there is still more than 90 minutes to go. The film it most closely resembles is Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) in that it wraps an absorbing mystery around an intensive history lesson that highlights the constructed nature of historiography by emphasizing how characters actively recreate history through dialogue and presentation. There is never a sense of absolute certainty even though characters pursue that ideal with dogged intensity (especially Graysmith), putting aside the rest of their lives in exchange for the chance--just the chance--to bring order to something that actively resists it.
|Zodiac Director's Cut Two-Disc DVD Set|
|The Director's Cut Two-Disc edition of Zodiac is also available on HD-DVD.|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||January 8, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer appears to be the same for the director's cut DVD as it was for the original single-disc edition released back in July 2007. Like all of Fincher's previous films, Zodiac is quite dark, with many scenes taking place at night. Black levels are perfect, and shadow detail is excellent in even the darkest scenes. Colors throughout the film are accurately muted and subdued, which gives the film the look of something shot in the 1970s. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is also excellent. As the film is primarily dialogue-driven, a great deal of the soundtrack is centered on the front soundstage, although there is great use of the surround channels for ambient noise and to add shock to the sudden bursts of gunfire in the film. The soundtrack also does a nice job of opening up the film's numerous '60s and '70s tunes that Fincher uses to establish both the era and the tone of many scenes.|
|There was certainly an outcry last summer when Zodiac was released on DVD without a single supplement, and while the release of this two-disc director's cut special edition is clearly an example of shameless double-dipping, the new material is good enough to warrant the wait. David Fincher's previous films have been the subject of some of the most exhaustive special edition discs ever made (particularly Seven and Fight Club), and while this new two-disc set isn't quite as immersive, it is still impressive. |
The first disc contains two full-length audio commentaries, one with Fincher on his own and one with actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., screenwriter James Vanderbilt, producer Brad Fischer, and author James Ellroy. Fincher's commentary is endlessly interesting and the one most fans were clamoring for. After all, in a film based so studiously on case files as this one, there are always questions about why a director made the choices he or she did. The second commentary is equally intriguing, especially with the presence of noted crime novelist James Ellroy.
The second disc contains several in-depth documentaries about the film and the actual Zodiac case. Zodiac Deciphered is an excellent 54-minute making-of documentary that is divided into seven parts. It features interviews with screenwriter James Vanderbilt, costume designer Casey Storm, set decorator Victor J. Zolfo, property master Hope M. Parrish, and author Robert Graysmith (we also hear audio interviews with several actors). The documentary offers a great deal of behind-the-scenes footage, and the best part is Fincher using 36 takes to get a shot of Gyllenhaal putting down a book. “The Visual Effects of Zodiac” is a perfect case study in the best kind of digital visual effects: the kind you don't notice. This brief featurette explores some of the film's largely invisible CGI work, from complete digital environments, to the placement of grass in the foreground, to the faux-time-lapse shot of the Transamerica Pyramid under construction. The previsualization featurette uses split-screen to show how the three murder scenes were worked out in detail using digital animatics.
The most intriguing supplements, however, are the two related to the actual case. This is the Zodiac Speaking is a feature-length documentary (1 hr. 42 min.) that is composed primarily of interviews with the police investigators and officers who have been involved in the case over the years, as well as the only two survivors of Zodiac attacks: Mike Mageau and Bryan Hartnell, the latter of whom returns on camera to the site of his attack at Lake Berryessa. The survivor's descriptions of their experiences are chilling, and while the documentary as a whole paints a fairly clear picture of the events, there are still numerous inconsistencies among the narratives, which emphasizes not only the fallibility of human perception, but how it deteriorates over the years. The documentary also includes actual crime scene photographs and images of the evidence still in storage at various police facilities. His Name was Arthur Leigh Allen is a 42-minute documentary that focuses on the case's primary suspect and the man on whom the film clearly pins the Zodiac killings. Allen is discussed by both the officers who investigated him and his friends and acquaintances.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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