To the average filmgoer, a director's name carries with it a load of expectations. When a film is the latest effort from the acclaimed director of Fight Club and Se7en, it's easy to expect a combination of each of those films. For those with more tempered expectations, David Fincher's Zodiac is an impressive, if lengthy, departure from his previous work.
Based upon two books by Robert Graysmith, Zodiac focuses on the cat-and-mouse game between the authorities and the infamous Zodiac Killer that terrorized California during the late '60s and early '70s. As bodies begin to pile up and cryptic letters from the killer pour into the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom, crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) become more and more engrossed in the case. This puts them alternately in cahoots and in conflict with the two SFPD detectives, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), assigned with capturing the killer.
The most surprising thing about the film is how little it resembles Fincher's earlier work, which is logical given that it's Fincher's first period piece--ignoring Alien 3.
Working with an impressive cast, most of which have never worked with Fincher before, and a similarly fresh crew, Fincher has recreated the mood of the period. The film's entire aesthetic is successfully lifted from the prototypical '70s crime drama, straight down to music, cars and hairstyles. This commitment to maintaining this consistency actually serves the story, as one of the more memorable segments in the film showcases the difficulty in coordinating an investigation when only the big-city police departments have the good equipment and the small-town cops are forced to mail evidence to them.
Without a doubt, the strength of the film is the cast. The film revolves around either Gyllenhaal or Ruffalo, and the duo is up to the challenge. Joining them are a cavalcade of supporting players, from the scene-stealing Downey and the unrecognizable Edwards to a bevy of name actors in smaller roles: Elias Koteas and Donal Logue are local cops, Philip Baker Hall is a handwriting expert, Chloe Sevigny is Gyllenhaal's love interest, John Carroll Lynch is a suspect and Dermot Mulroney is an SFPD captain.
Despite the strong cast, Zodiac suffers a bit due to length and content. The film clocks in at a bloated 156 minutes and because it's a procedural crime drama, there are some tedious investigation scenes that must be endured. In Zodiac, some are endured twice. After witnessing the police hit dead ends while investigating a suspect, Gyllenhaal spends a large chunk of the second half of the film investigating him again in a more boring way--reading police reports. While these scenes do directly lead to the final payoff scene, they halt the momentum. Had Fincher decided to trim these segments slightly, Zodiac could've kept its steam without losing any critical story elements.
After making a series of films with cult followings--like Fight Club--Zodiac is Fincher's stab into the mainstream. While not quite a masterpiece on the level of his earlier work, Zodiac is still a success.