Jake Gyllenhaal (left) and Mark Ruffalo in "Zodiac," now in theaters. (Paramount)
Sin, wrote Paul Tillich, is estrangement from God. He believed that estrangement reaches not only the relationship between the person and God, but the person and all other relationships. When a person is caught up in sin, that person gets disconnected from everyone.
David Fincher's "Zodiac" provides a window into the soul and gives an example of this very disconnect from the points of view of a serial killer and those who hunt for him.
"Zodiac" begins in the late '60s, when we witness the murder and the attempted murder of a young couple in a state park outside of San Francisco. Thus begins the reign of a killer who calls himself Zodiac. He kills the woman, but the young man survives and to the consternation of investigators seems to drop off the face of the earth.
Zodiac sends a cipher to all of the major newspapers in the Bay Area. He wants the cipher published and says it will lead to his identity. In an editorial staff meeting of the San Francisco Chronicle we meet Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), the chief crime reporter, and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the editorial cartoonist. Avery digs deep into the story, and we watch him fall apart because of it. Graysmith gets fascinated with Zodiac's cipher and stands on the fringe as the story picks up.
Later we meet Inspectors David Tocshi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), who get assigned the case through one of the murders. A large part of the story is the fact that the murders take place over multiple jurisdictions involving different departments. In this age before e-mail and fax machines, working together is made more difficult. It takes persistence for police work to get done. Tocshi and Armstrong burn the oil searching for a killer that taunts them through the media.
The movie spans decades with lots of dead ends and false leads. As time passes, the movie shows us characters that become consumed by the case. Paul Avery gets personally threatened by Zodiac, but is determined to follow through. His obsession turns him into a drunk living in near squalor. William Armstrong burns brightly, but realizes he cannot continue on a case with no end in sight. He transfers before doing damage to self. The movie shows careers, health and marriages lost because of the obsession of one human to kill—and other humans obsessed with finding him.
Herein lies the movie's theme: Obsession leads to the fall. It asks us to consider if doing good for the sake of goodness and in the pursuit of an evildoer is a noble thing, or is it just another type of bad done? We witness estrangement in the lives of those caught up with the Zodiac. All the while, the killer sits outside, indulging his obsession of making the world dance to his tune. He is the fiddler that makes others dance in the pale moonlight.
David Fincher delivers the first important movie of 2007. His previous work, "Se7en" and "Fight Club," are near cult status. This work shows a maturity and an eye to detail that makes the movie more compelling. His visuals and art direction capture the 60s, 70s and 80s brilliantly. The movie has the feel of that great 70s show "Police Story."
The movie also has performances that should be remembered at Oscar time next year. Robert Downey, Jr. proves he is one of the finest actors currently working (and this coming from one who has not liked much of his work). Mark Ruffalo embodies the cop trying to muddle through a world of blood and guts to hold people accountable.
And Jake Gyllenhaal portrays the nebbish who easily gets caught up in the details and cannot stop until the end. He reminded me of Richard Dreyfuss' Roy Neary in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." He knows "this means something" and will seek it to the end, regardless of the price.
With a culture caught in the throes of addiction of one kind or another, Fincher takes us on an unflinching ride into the dark side. He makes us see things that are unsettling, but most of those are not the murders, but rather the power of obsession.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for some strong killings, language, drug material, and brief sexual images.
Director: David Fincher
Writers: James Vanderbilt (based on the book by Robert Graysmith)
Cast: Robert Graysmith: Jake Gyllenhaal; Inspector David Tocshi: Mark Ruffalo; Paul Avery: Robert Downey Jr.; Inspector William Armstrong: Anthony Edwards; Melvin Belli: Brian Cox; Arthur Leigh Allen: John Carroll Lynch.