Lowdown: The story of how a Dirty Harry story goes on in real life.
Back in 1995 Bryan Singer and David Fincher have both directed landmark films: Singer did The Usual Suspects, Fincher did Se7en. These films were so good that I kept on tracking their directors' subsequent work: Singer, on one hand, went down big time, generating poor films such as the X-Men series. While Fincher was never able to climb to the peaks of Se7en again, he did do a fair enough job with The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room; say what you will about them, they are all fairly original. And so is Zodiac.
Zodiac is supposed to be based on a true story, which is something this reviewer is not able to fully confirm other than state that I do have some corresponding childhood memories consisting of hearing about the famous Zodiac killer. According to the film, back in the early seventies there was this serial killer in the San Francisco area that killed people for no particular reason and was thus elusive to catch; the story follows a group of people tracking him and trying to get him, specifically a newspaper cartoonist that ended up writing a book on Zodiac (Jake Gyllenhaal), a crime newspaper reporter (Robert Downey Jr.), and the police detective hunting the Zodiac (Mark Ruffalo, who provides the most impressive performance in the film).
The plot of Zodiac moves on the same way most crime films work. There's a murder, there are clues, and the good guys get closer and closer to the killer. There is a key difference, though: as the film progresses you notice more and more that the film is not about catching the Zodiac killer at all; the film is actually the tale of the frustration that hits the main characters again and again as they fail to catch the criminal and as they go on living their lives despite the frustration over a period of many years. Some of them actually don't cope, others do, and others end up somewhere in the middle; the point is, Zodiac seems to be discussing a criminal investigation, but it's actually a gripping tale about human nature. The trick is that we the viewers have been so well conditioned through crime films that we don't realize this is the case until quite late in the film, which is exactly why I think so highly of Fincher (and also why I am looking forward to his upcoming Rendezvous with Rama).
Zodiac earns lots of points on the way through its interesting direction work and cinematography. Shots that should have been mundane and boring, like a car passing by, are made to look interesting and original. Sometimes it gets over the top and attracts too much attention to itself, but overall it gives the aroma of freshness and originality.
Best scene: All the heroes sit together at the cinema and watch Dirty Harry. I never realized that Dirty Harry is so heavily based on a real case: the baddie there calls himself Scorpio, the plot takes place in San Francisco, and the killer's escapades are pretty similar too. The main difference is that in Dirty Harry you have Dirty Harry who has his own way of addressing crime, while real life is [thankfully] significantly different.
Picture quality: There's a lot of noise and the picture has this outdated look, but it's obviously by design. Everything is made to look like old seventies stuff.
Sound quality: There is full use of the 5.1 palette to create an atmosphere of insecurity, mainly through the sounds of the big city. That's quite good, but more oomph wouldn't have hurt at all.
Overall: It all depends on how you deal with the unexpected. Me, I liked it 3.5 out of 5 stars much.