It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
'Zodiac" is the "All the President's Men" of serial killer movies, with Woodward and Bernstein played by a cop and a cartoonist. It's not merely "based" on California's infamous Zodiac killings, but seems to exude the very stench and provocation of the case. The killer, who was never caught, generously supplied so many clues that Sherlock Holmes might have cracked the case in his sitting room. But only a newspaper cartoonist was stubborn enough, and tunneled away long enough, to piece together a convincing case against a man who was perhaps guilty.
The film is a police procedural crossed with a newspaper movie, but free of most of the cliches of either. Its most impressive accomplishment is to gather a bewildering labyrinth of facts and suspicions over a period of years, and make the journey through this maze frightening and suspenseful. I could imagine becoming hopelessly mired in the details of the Zodiac investigation, but director David Fincher ("Seven") and his writer, James Vanderbilt, find their way with clarity through the murk. In a film with so many characters, the casting by Laray Mayfield is also crucial; like the only eyewitness in the case, we remember a face once we've seen it.
The film opens with a sudden, brutal, bloody killing, followed by others not too long after -- five killings the police feel sure Zodiac committed, although others have been attributed to him. But this film will not be a bloodbath. The killer does his work in the earlier scenes of the film, and then, when he starts sending encrypted letters to newspapers, the police and reporters try to do theirs.
The two lead inspectors on the case are David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). Toschi, famous at the time, tutored Steve McQueen for "Bullitt" and was the role model for Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. Ruffalo plays him not as a hotshot but as a dogged officer who does things by the book because he believes in the book. Edwards' character, his partner, is more personally worn down by the sheer vicious nature of the killer and his taunts.