Director David Fincher is best known for surreal morality tales like 'Se7en,' 'The Game,' and 'Fight Club,' but he recently shifted his focus from modern allegories in order to tackle a dense procedural film based on actual events. Initially, the story of a cartoonist, an investigator, and a self-destructive journalist who all 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 examining the dark obsessions of its protagonists as it stares into the shadows of pure evil.
'Zodiac' begins in the summer of 1969, when a bizarre letter and cryptogram arrive on the desk of Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who is covering a series of murders in the area. The letter appears to be from the killer, identifying himself as the Zodiac, and threatens to continue the killing spree. As the killer continues to send letters and coded messages to police and newspapers, 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 killings and communications continue over the years, Avery and Graysmith become friends, eventually joining forces with lead detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) in their attempts to close the case.
Rest assured, Fincher does not approach the film by rehashing the infamous elements of his serial killer opus 'Se7en.’ While the setup and themes may seem similar, the two films are very 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 rather a psychological crime drama.
Fincher is tapping 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.
With a running time of almost 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, only adding 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 unbelievable, and I commend Fincher's confidence and patience.
If I had any problem with the film, it's that the story inevitably ends with the anti-climactic realization that the killer was never caught and the case may never be solved. The last moments of the film are pure Fincher, pointing the audience toward one suspect in particular, but even he can't escape the confines of the actual events. 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.
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. Unlike so many recent director’s cuts, the added material only enhances the overall experience, and never feels 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 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer included on the HD DVD edition of 'Zodiac: Director's Cut' has been taken straight from its pristine digital source, and the results are nothing less than spectacular.
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 find any sonic fireworks here, but the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround track included on this HD DVD edition of 'Zodiac: Director's Cut,' is certainly faithful to the film’s subtly effective sound design. In the interest of realism, Fincher filled 'Zodiac' with conversations and a hushed soundscape. As such, the rear speakers are merely used for subtle ambiance and any significant LFE presence only pops up in a few tense scenes.
Still, the mix is handled beautifully, and accurately reproduces 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. 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 subtlety that lets a viewer completely immerse in a scene without realizing how essential the audio is to the experience.
'Zodiac: Director's Cut' arrives on a 2-disc HD DVD set that ports over all of the extensive special features from the 2-disc Director's Cut DVD. Better still, the vast majority of the features are presented here in high definition. The package not only includes a hefty look at Fincher's production, it features one of the most thorough examinations of the Zodiac case available on home video.
(Note that all of the video features appear on disc 2 -- only the commentaries appear on disc 1.)
The HD DVD edition of 'Zodiac: Director's Cut' features a great flick, a stunning video transfer, and an accurate audio track. 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 becomes an easy recommend.
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.