Release Date:  March 2, 2007
Rating:  R (for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images)
Genre:  Murder Mystery
Running Time:  160 min.
Director:  David Fincher
Actors:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Charles Fleischer, Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas

An R-rated film about an infamous serial killer is the first great “family film” of 2007.

No, it’s not appropriate for anyone other than adults, but at its heart, Zodiac is about family values. Its main subject isn’t death, murder and crime, although those elements make up the bulk of its plot. Instead, the movie shows how we protect, or fail to protect, our children against a media onslaught that desensitizes and dehumanizes.

Zodiac reminds us that such concerns are longstanding. Beginning in the late '60s, the film shows the rise of media influence as the man who dubs himself The Zodiac Killer uses newspapers, radio and television to broadcast his demented ideas to as wide an audience as possible. In this, the film reminds us that the heritage of 1960s excess isn’t limited to sex and drugs, but extends to media saturation and sensationalism.

The film focuses on four characters, dominated by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who followed the case as it unfolded in his paper’s newsroom. The Chronicle was one of a few newspapers that received coded letters with demands and threats from the killer. A puzzle enthusiast, Graysmith pursues the case in his spare time, checking out books on code-breaking from his local library. He forms a bond with newsroom colleague Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), who reports on the case for the paper. As Avery spirals downward during the years that the killer remains on the loose, the clean-living Graysmith, who neither smokes nor drinks, finds himself addicted to his own efforts to break the Zodiac case.

The film also follows the work and family lives of two detectives: Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). Toschi is repeatedly awakened in the middle of the night by calls from his partner, as they doggedly pursue any and all leads in the case. As Toschi’s interest in the Zodiac descends into obsession, Armstrong’s pursuit is cut short by his realization that the case, and detective work in general, is taking too heavy a toll on his family life.

Adding support to the phenomenal cast is Brian Cox as lawyer Melvin Belli, drawn into the case by the Zodiac’s specific demands to speak with him, and Elias Koteas as Sgt. Jack Mulanax. John Carroll Lynch is unsettling as a chief suspect in the case, and Charles Fleischer—the voice of Roger Rabbit—gives a creepy performance as another person of interest in the case.

Zodiac is a film dominated by men. It’s a man’s story, from a man’s perspective, about a man’s priorities. How committed can one be to a job that takes a toll on one’s marriage and family life? How many times is one willing to be awakened in the middle of the night and called to a crime scene?

Toschi and Armstrong are the two obsessive detectives who come to different conclusions about their efforts, but it’s Graysmith whose family life is at the heart of the film. As he drives in his car with his young son, he tries to shield the boy from broadcast reports about the killer—including the Zodiac’s specific threats against children. Later, when the killer calls into a live television program, Graysmith watches the broadcast alongside his son. The killer offers a ride to a woman, intent on killing her but surprised to discover that she has an infant with her. “Before I kill you, I’m going to throw your baby out the window,” he tells her, matter-of-factly.

As the years begin to pass—and they leap ahead rapidly in the latter portion of this film—we see Graysmith at the family dinner table, eyes on the TV, which is broadcasting news about the killer—until his wife (Chloe Sevigny) blocks his view of the TV set. But by this time, Graysmith is encouraging his children to pay attention to the case—the only way we see him bond with his offspring.

As Graysmith inserts himself more deeply into the evolving case, even at great personal risk, his wife challenges him. He needs to know who the killer is, Graysmith tells her, but she responds, “Is that more important than your family’s safety?”

Director David Fincher concludes the film with a text that updates viewers on the case and characters. One provocative note informs us that Graysmith today “enjoys a healthy relationship with his children” (his wife is not mentioned). What this means is left for the viewer to figure out.

Running 2 hours and 40 minutes, it’s easy to lose sight of the film’s meaning, especially if the viewer is unaware of the outcome of The Zodiac Killer case, which spans decades. Because the film tells the story of an infamous unsolved case—something that’s been widely acknowledged in press reports and is good to know going in, lest viewers spend 160 minutes anticipating a satisfying resolution to the case—it fails to satisfy a viewer’s thirst for justice, or even closure. But that’s not the movie’s main point. Zodiac is about the toll that obsession, insane working hours, and media saturation take on family life, and whether the pursuit of justice is sufficient rationale for such trials.

Zodiac is fascinating, spectacularly well filmed and well performed. But it offers no comfort. It is unsettling and disturbing, examining earlier roots of so many of our current problems. It challenges us to leave justice to the Lord, but also to admire—to a point—those who are called to pursue it, questioning the limits of such dogged determination. Although the film lacks closure, it reminds us that events are not in our control, but in God’s, who “will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).

AUDIENCE:  Adults only

CAUTIONS:

  • Language:  Lord’s name taken in vain; several profanities; a man “flips the bird”; racial epithet.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Two people in a parked car question whether the woman’s husband is watching them; phone calls awaken a husband wife in bed; the killer is referred to by a reporter as a “latent homosexual”; a teacher is said to have been fired for inappropriately touching his students; adult magazines are briefly pictured.
  • Violence:  Depictions of several of the Zodiac killer’s attempted murders, including by gunshot and, in one terrible scene, repeated stabbings; while driving, the killer threatens to throw a baby out of a car window; the Zodiac killer’s notes to the press include references to him being “reborn in paradise” after death, where he “will have slaves in the afterlife”; the notes also threaten specific violence, including attacks on young children, against a priest and an African American; gunfire during killings and during a scene of target practice.
  • Smoking/Drinking:  The main character is said not to smoke or drink; drug and alcohol use by one reporter; scenes in a bar; wine consumption.