Based on the Robert Graysmith books about the real life notorious Zodiac, a serial killer who terrorized San Francisco with a string of seemingly random murders during the 1960s and 1970s.
Best known for surreal morality tales like 'Se7en,' 'The Game,' and 'Fight Club,' director David Fincher recently shifted his focus to tackle a dense, historically accurate procedural film. Initially, the story of a cartoonist, an investigator, and a self-destructive journalist who fail to bring one of America's most notorious serial killers to justice wouldn't seem to tap into Fincher's sensibilities. However, 'Zodiac' ultimately proves to be a Fincher classic -- a film that dives into the dark obsessions of its protagonists and peers into the shadows of evil.
'Zodiac' opens in the summer of 1969 as a bizarre letter and cryptogram arrive on the desk of Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who's covering a series of murders in the area. Penned by the killer (now calling himself "The Zodiac"), the letter informs the media that his extracurricular activities will continue over the coming weeks. As the Zodiac continues to send letters and coded messages to police and the newspaper, Avery and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), The Chronicle’s political cartoonist, become obsessed with deciphering the messages for clues to the killer’s identity. As the murders and strange communications continue over the years, Avery and Graysmith become friends, eventually joining forces with lead detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) in his attempts to close the case.
Rest assured, Fincher doesn't approach 'Zodiac' by rehashing the infamous elements of his serial killer opus 'Se7en.’ While the setup and themes may seem similar, the two films are entirely different animals. 'Zodiac' is essentially Fincher's "Moby Dick" -- rather than concentrating on the murders themselves, the film paints an intimate portrait of the men obsessed with finding the killer. The result is not a conventional thriller, but a psychological crime drama that explores each hero's obsession with capturing their white whale.
Fincher taps into something inherently more unsettling than in his previous work -- reality. In fact, 'Zodiac' feels so authentic that I immediately began pouring through the extensive special features to see what, if anything, the filmmakers had altered in bringing the story to the screen. To their credit, Fincher, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and producer Brad Fischer have really done their research in recreating the events that held the city of San Francisco in fear for years. With a running time of nearly three hours, some may find the film to be too long or too slow for their tastes, but I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. The performances are stellar, contributing a series of intricate characterizations and nuanced developments to the film’s many layers. Fincher's quiet, meandering pace only makes the dread of the Zodiac's freedom more unbearable with each passing scene. The suspense is unbelievably thick, and I commend Fincher's confidence and patience with the material.
If I have any problem with the film, it's that the story inevitably ends with the anti-climactic realization that the killer has never been caught and the case may never be solved. The last moments of the film are pure Fincher and point the audience toward a single suspect, but even he can't escape the confines of history. Thankfully, a rich collection of supplements make this 'Director's Cut' edition of the film an open-ended introduction into a complex, ongoing investigation that continues after the closing credits have rolled.
Boasting stunning performances, exquisite direction, and a thoroughly engaging story, ‘Zodiac’ has all the necessary components of a classic true crime drama. There's a reason 'Zodiac' has appeared on dozens of top ten lists of the best films in 2007 -- make sure you take the opportunity to find out why.
(Note that this 'Director's Cut' version of the film runs five minutes longer than the original theatrical version. However, unlike other recent director’s cuts, the added material in 'Zodiac' actually enhances the overall experience and doesn't feel overindulgent.)
'Zodiac' holds the honor of being the first film shot entirely in 1080p high definition with digital Thompson Viper Filmstream cameras -- the same groundbreaking cameras director Michael Mann used to film portions of 'Miami Vice' and 'Collateral.' As such, the Blu-ray edition's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer has been minted straight from its pristine digital source, and the results are nothing less than spectacular. It's also worth noting that this domestic BD transfer appears to be virtually identical to the previously-released and reviewed HD DVD and import editions of the film.
The strengths of the transfer are not immediately apparent -- Fincher's palette is subdued to say the least and the film is cloaked in drab colors and dark shadows. However, it only takes a few scenes to send your jaw careening to the floor. Detail is extraordinary -- every sheet of paper and every letter of newspaper text is crystal clear. Skin and clothing look incredibly sharp, with textures retaining an eerie realism that makes you feel as if you could reach out and touch anything on the screen. The entire film creates a convincing picture-window effect unlike any other transfer I've seen. To top it all off, contrast is dead on, black levels are perfect, and there isn't a lick of source noise or artifacting to be found.
I did catch a few instances of faint banding, but it didn't detract from the otherwise perfect transfer. Spend some time with 'Zodiac: Director's Cut' and you'll find that it has one of the most remarkable and natural transfers on the market today. Kudos to Paramount and Fincher for delivering such an amazing technical achievement.
You won't encounter many sonic fireworks on the Blu-ray edition of 'Zodiac,' but its Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track is completely faithful to the film’s subtly effective sound design. After a thorough comparison, it's also quite clear that the track delivers a very similar experience to the HD DVD's Dolby Digital Plus mix (despite the upgrade to lossless audio).
In the interest of creating an immersive but believable soundscape, Fincher populates 'Zodiac' with hushed conversations and an overwhelmingly natural soundscape. As such, the rear speakers are merely used for errant ambiance and significant LFE usage only occurs in a few tense scenes. Still, balance and realism is handled beautifully, allowing the track to accurately reproduce Fincher's every intention. Dialogue is crisp, perfectly prioritized, and spread nicely across the front of the soundfield. Environmental ambiance is always present, interior acoustics are impressive, and pans are swift and transparent.
More importantly, strict channel accuracy makes the best of every element in the soundfield and greatly enhances the film's already palpable tension. Listen to any scene in the Chronicle offices and you’ll notice the typewriters, the murmurs in the distance, and the shuffling of papers. It's this sort of technical proficiency that allows viewers to completely sink into any particular scene without realizing how essential the audio actually is to the experience.
Spread across two Blu-ray discs, 'Zodiac' is packed with all of the extensive special features that first appeared on the HD DVD and Director's Cut DVD. Better still, the supplemental package not only includes a hefty look at Fincher's production, it boasts one of the most thorough examinations of the Zodiac case available on home video.
The Blu-ray edition of 'Zodiac: Director's Cut' features a fantastic flick, a stunning video transfer, and a subtle and faithful audio track (that matches the exceptional presentation of the previously-released HD DVD). When you factor in a supplemental package that includes exhaustive accounts of the production, multiple commentaries, and a series of documentaries about the actual events, this release is a cinch to recommend and one that's definitely worth your economically-strapped cash.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.