I went into this movie biased. Not because Jake is in it, mind you, but because I did my high school term paper on Charles Manson and have ever since held a strange fascination for serial killers/mass murders who terrorized California in the late 1960's. No. For real. I'll start off by saying that I walked out of the theater in mild panic wondering how the hell I was going to do a snarky review of this film. I actually saw it for the first time several days ago and have been mulling it over ever since (and then got a second viewing in last night). I came to the conclusion that what I had to say wasn't all that amusing, so...serious post! It's unlikely to happen again, so revel in it.
I know a lot of you have months to wait before you see this. I can tell you right off that the information intake is overwhelming, both visually and aurally, so if you can wait, I'd strongly suggest that you not download this somewhere. I honestly believe the experience will be infinitely better on a big screen with surround-sound (and even at that, it's easy to miss things when there is so much to absorb). Also, out of respect for those outside the U.S., I'll keep this as spoiler-free as possible, although I'm hoping by now the general story is common knowledge, and thus I won't be giving away anything major (but if you're deadset against knowing any of the details, stop reading after the spoiler warning). For a more detailed discussion of Zodiac, I'd suggest going to the Jake Watch Forum.
I thought I'd start by telling you how to prepare yourself as a Jake fan for the experience, because I have a feeling some of you may like a heads up on what you're walking into.
First of all, I don't think you can see this movie for Jake. If he is the only reason you're seeing the film, I'd be surprised if you weren't mildly disappointed. Jake's character, Robert Graysmith, is a nerd. He's fidgety, he awkwardly "looms" over people's desks, he wears lots of clothes at all times, and, most importantly, his only apparent interest in the movie is the serial killer he is obsessed with. I don't know where "Jake Gyllenhaal" went while filming this, but he is nowhere to be found in this movie.
You may think that's painfully obvious, but I think a lot of us (myself included) have come to associate Jake the Person with certain traits in the characters he plays. I mean, come on. Am I wrong to say that Jack Twist + Donnie Darko = someone's idea of Jake Gyllenhaal? I say this because we see similarities in these characters and Jake himself and therefore come to expect certain things in Jake's performances which aren't seen in Zodiac. There is no trademark ear-to-ear grin, no shirtless scenes, no cocky self-confidence, and certainly not enough tongue action for anyone sitting in the audience and say, "yeah, that's when I drool over Jake Gyllenhaal...when I see that." There isn't much "that" in this movie. I think it is an enormous testament to Jake's acting abilities that he was so incredibly convincing in this role, but I'm envisioning lots of disappointed, "why couldn't there have been a sex scene?!" comments from fans emerging from the theater (oh, you know someone will say it...in fact I'm pretty sure someone already did).
Secondly, Jake is the headliner, but his on-screen time-ratio is strictly proportional to his character's importance in the unfolding of the story. That is to say, he's in it a lot, but he's also not in it a lot. Which brings us to...
Thirdly, be prepared for lots of Mark Ruffalo. In my initial assessment, I'd say he has as much screen-time as Jake. So I would suggest that anything he has said off-camera about working with David Fincher, and how that did or did not coincide with what Jake has said about working with David Fincher, should be taken out of the equation. I think if you're concentrating only on when Jake will be on screen next, you'll find the movie long and ultimately unrewarding.
But go in open-minded, and this is a textbook example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
That out of the way, the film itself was incredible. I've frequently said that I would be interested in this movie if Jake had not been in it and I stand by that (mainly on account of sentence #2 at the top there...I told you I wasn't kidding). I see a lot of movies and have overly-developed opinions on what I do or do not like in a film. For one, I don't mind being asked to think as long as the movie doesn't take itself too seriously, and I found Zodiac to be balanced perfectly for my tastes. This was serious subject matter, yes, but the film wasn't pretentious, it wasn't preachy, it wasn't overly analytical in the psychology of the matter (perhaps surprisingly because of the tagline, "There's more than one way to lose your life to a serial killer"), and it certainly wasn't dragged down by a lack of action. I never once wondered when it was going to be over, and in fact was a little surprised that it ended when it did. Having read the book, I already knew the plot, but still found myself held in suspense.
There is violence (unavoidable considering the subject matter) but the lack of gratuitous gore is admirable considering the gruesomeness of the murders themselves. The soundtrack is great. There were a few genuinely scary scenes, but I'd say the general vibe was much more towards "creepy" than "frightening." There is a lot of background noise in certain scenes, resulting in conversations that you might miss a word of two of. Surprisingly, though, this recurring quirk isn't annoying, but only makes everything seem that much more real. Because it almost is real. It's as close to the real thing as we're ever going to get.
So what was this movie? It was a damned convincing look at how the Zodiac murders can be linked to one man who, despite his gory track record, wasn't much of a criminal mastermind. In fact, it's amazing he wasn't caught. The movie leaves open the possibility (however remote) that the suspect in mind is not the killer, but it's doubtful anyone leaving the theater will think otherwise. But in the end, the result of "solving" the Zodiac case is inconsequential compared to the method it took to get there. Any way you look at it, Zodiac won. Not only did he quite literally get away with murder, he drug down several highly intelligent individuals, invading their lives to the point of obsession and destruction. The question remains whether or not the Zodiac knew that he had such far-reaching influence. Taunting the police (and the public) was obviously a favorite pastime, but it's hard to say if he did it purely for his own personal glory, or if he was aware of the level of madness he was instilling in those working to catch him.
One of the most chilling scenes is when the suspect is interviewed at his workplace and the clues fall so perfectly into place that it's almost painful to sit there knowing he will get away. By the time he does inevitably get off the hook, you are just as frustrated as David Toschi (played by Mark Ruffalo) to have hit a wall. Similarly, when Graysmith (some dude named Jake) starts putting the pieces together while researching his book, his enthusiasm is infectious.
Obviously a few liberties had to be taken when translating Graysmith's book onto the big screen. In one way, I found the movie more affecting since I was able to literally watch the key figures evolve as the Zodiac case progressed. I also found that some of the added personal details about the characters' lives made their descent into obsession all the more fascinating. For obvious reasons, many details were left out...but it didn't matter. The bulk of the story is there, displaying some strange harmony between the presentation, so convincing it's like looking back in time, and the actual drama, so outrageous it's difficult to believe these events ever happened. It's an extraordinary story portrayed in an extraordinary way.
Having asked people who had read the book beforehand against those who hadn't, I found that no one was complaining of difficulty in following the storyline. The length of the movie inevitably led to a couple of awkward edits (the two that come to mind are the scene in which the man finds the lake victims - my initial thought was that he was the Zodiac killer showing uncharacteristic remorse, although I quickly realized my mistake - and the scene in which Paul Avery - Robert Downey, Jr. - goes to Riverside to meet an informant, since the meeting itself is not shown on screen, but only the before and after).
The murder victims may at first seemed downplayed, but I don't think there's any question that the film is about the Zodiac's other victims. There is nothing about the aftermath of the killings that isn't disturbing, and you are left with a sense of confusion as to how anyone could create such a destructive ripple effect, especially someone so seemingly inadequate to pull off the task.
One thing I noticed was the repeated mention of the Zodiac killer being obsessed with movies, down to the point of vocalizing his desire to have one made about him. It was a detail I remembered from the book but didn't think would be included in the screen version for obvious reasons. As it turned out, it posed the movie's most interesting question: Are we still being played by the killer? The Zodiac sent his first letter to The San Francisco Chronicle decades ago, and yet here he is back again, still being discussed, and not just by police and newspaper reporters. His crimes and his communications have entered into the cultural consciousness to such a degree that here I sit, writing about them on a fanblog for an actor who wasn't even born at the time. In some bizarre, twisted way, this movie has become the final chapter for the Zodiac killer, because he finally got the film (and subsequent cultural longevity) that he always wanted.
So PG officially gives it two very enthusiastic thumbs up, for the entertainment value, for the stimulating subject matter, and for inspiring a very atypical Jake Watch post. Oh, and don't worry. There are plenty of close-ups and the digital clarity is amazing. ;)
P.S. In the competition for the Award for Most Movies Made with Jake Gyllenhaal, John Carroll Lynch is in it to win.
This movie review is dedicated to Nick, who saw this with me and, despite having only met me once before, marched proudly into the theater wearing an "I'm stalking Jake!" button. Way to go, Nick!! But before that winds up on the cover People Magazine, I can assure you he doesn't belong to me. ;) Oh, and also to my parents for buying my ticket for the second viewing. :D
Picture courtesy of my press badge.