Stars Align in Zodiac: Cast Saves Fincher’s Shaggy-Dog Psychodrama

David Fincher’s Zodiac, from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith, provides the latest installment of Mr. Fincher’s curiously perverse career, spent in the indulgence and exploitation of baroque forms of depravity and evil. He began uneventfully enough with the inauspicious derivativeness of a sequel to a sequel in Alien 3 in 1992. But three years later in 1995, Mr. Fincher burst into prominence with the box-office bonanza Se7en, a grim tale of two detectives hunting for a serial killer, whose victims had each committed one of the seven deadly sins. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman played the detectives. And this bull’s-eye in casting has characterized Mr. Fincher’s successful career ever since. The Game (1997) profitably recruited Michael Douglas and Sean Penn in a real-life cat-and-mouse game involving two brothers—one of whom torments the other.

In 1999, Mr. Fincher was reteamed with Mr. Pitt—along with Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter—in Fight Club, a baroque, bare-fisted extravaganza that anticipated today’s media-driven craze for total combat in the ring. Then, in 2002, he directed Panic Room, in which Jodie Foster and her children outwit and outlast a trio of predators (played by Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto) with the technological devices of a maximum-security mansion.

Now, in Zodiac, Mr. Fincher’s flair for casting is the major asset of his curiously attenuated return to the serial-killer genre. I keep saying “curiously” with regard to Mr. Fincher, because I can’t really figure out what he is up to in Zodiac—with its two-hour-and-37-minute running time for what struck me as a shaggy-dog narrative. Still, Mr. Fincher and his scenarist, Mr. Vanderbilt, have gone to great lengths to cast a spell of authenticity over the pursuit of a West Coast murderer, who reportedly taunted the press as no one of this ilk has done since Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. (I can’t remember if New York City’s Son of Sam figures in this competition.)

Still, the story of Zodiac is never told from the point of view of the killer. Indeed, he is never positively identified, much less convicted in a court of law. Four of his crimes are graphically depicted with his face carefully hidden, though two of his victims—the male halves of necking couples—survived the assaults, which makes the story curiouser and curiouser.

The first of the Zodiac Killer’s letters were delivered simultaneously on Aug. 1, 1969, to the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the Vallejo Time-Herald. “Dear Editor,” the missives began: “This is the murderer …. ” Without giving the names of the victims, the self-named Zodiac Killer furnished enough background details that only the police could know about the two sets of killings to galvanize all three publications into front-page frenzy. David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen had been shot to death on Dec. 20, 1968, on Lake Herman Road in Solano County. Then, on July 4, 1969, Zodiac intimated in his letter, he was responsible for the fatal shooting of Darlene Ferrin and the attempted murder of Mike Mageau on the Blue Springs golf course parking lot in Vallejo.

For reasons that I will soon reveal, the film’s narrative stays in the newsroom of the Chronicle and never ventures into the offices of the other two papers on Zodiac’s mailing list. Actually, two of the major characters in the film were based on real-life employees of the Chronicle: Robert Grayson, the paper’s shy and repressed editorial cartoonist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal; and the Chronicle’s crackerjack crime reporter, Paul Avery, played by Robert Downey Jr. Avery’s scoops over the years had been facilitated by his pipeline into the San Francisco Police Department through his personal friendship with homicide inspector David Toscha, played by Mark Ruffalo, and his quietly conscientious second-in-command, William Armstrong, played by Anthony Edwards.

Along with his descriptions of his murders in his first letters, Zodiac enclosed a complicated cryptogram—made up of many different kinds of symbols—which, he wrote, would reveal his name. (“Zodiac,” as it unhelpfully turned out.) The cryptogram itself was quickly deciphered by a bookish husband-and-wife team of academics. Zodiac had also demanded that his letter and the accompanying cryptogram be published on the front page or he would go on a killing spree.

He did anyway—at least twice—after more letters and threats. On Sept. 27, 1969, a hooded Zodiac armed with a gun and a sheathed blade would fatally stab Cecilia Ann Shepard and leave her male companion, Bryan Hartnell, for dead while they picnicked on Lake Berryessa in Napa County. Two weeks later, on Oct. 11, Zodiac shot taxi driver Paul Lee Stine in the back of the head after he had been delivered to the upscale Presidio Heights neighborhood in San Francisco. He then fled into a nearby park. Because early reports misidentified him as a black man, a possible white suspect in the area escaped the police without being questioned.

If the name of Grayson strikes you as familiar, it is because the movie is based on his best-selling books, Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked. Hence, a great deal of the film’s time is spent on Zodiac’s cryptograms, and on the 1932 Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel adventure thriller The Most Dangerous Game with Joel McCrea, Fay Wray and Leslie Banks—one of several adaptations of Richard Connell’s famous short story, in which man is described as the most dangerous animal, a clue deduced by Grayson from Zodiac’s first cryptogram. This leads to a dead-end investigation of a film society and its red-herring-like creepy curator. Indeed, I have never seen a movie so full of dead ends.

A great deal of time is spent also on the problems of communication between the various police jurisdictions, the many cleared suspects and the many false leads. In the end, we have gotten several looks at the most likely Zodiac, but little CSI and Law & Order satisfaction in nailing the culprit. Since I knew next to nothing about the subject before I saw the movie at an advanced screening—and had not paid much attention to the early credits—I began to wonder if the eccentric behavior of the Grayson and Avery characters meant anything more than it seemed on the surface.

With one of the most thankless female lead roles in memory, Chloë Sevigny suffers gallantly and expertly as Melanie, Grayson’s main squeeze, who must play an embarrassing second fiddle to his monomaniacal, amateur detective’s passion to unmask the Zodiac—if only for a few seconds. Yet again, if the film is worth seeing at all, it is because of the compelling performances of Mr. Gyllenhaal, Mr. Downey, Mr. Ruffalo and Mr. Edwards, along with Brian Cox as Melvin Belli—the famous lawyer—and Philip Baker Hall as a handwriting expert who, though incorruptible, was more of a hindrance than a help in the case.

Ellen: Better Than Bob Hope!

In the media warm-ups for this year’s Oscars, the only suspenseful question seemed to be which picture would take home the top prize (since all the acting awards were supposedly in the tank). Then I began hearing murmurs of people hating Eddie Murphy to the point that they might switch to the comparatively lovable Alan Arkin. At the last moment, I began to wonder if subtitled films might be handicapped in the DVD versions, which is how many—if not most—of the Academy voters choose to view the nominees. All I could do was wait and see—which is what I did—and this was what I saw.

First, the usually stone-cold Academy audience—which is traditionally awash with anxiety and apprehension—was literally swept off its feet by the magically effervescent Ellen DeGeneres, a daytime television performer, who relaxed the tense audience as no previous Academy host ever had. Ms. DeGeneres was assisted by a team of 10 writers—including herself—but it was her gently self-mocking star-struck self that demystified the Big Night of Dread and Deflated Dreams. For my money, she was the most effective Oscar M.C. ever—better even than Bob Hope or Billy Crystal. The same audience that froze Jon Stewart off the stage last year melted into a quiescent puddle of daytime studio spectators to the antics of the pseudo-star-struck Ellen: pressuring Steven Spielberg to take a picture of her with Clint Eastwood, after she foisted a script on Martin Scorsese while he was figuratively biting his nails over the impending decisions on Best Director and Best Picture. Otherwise, it was an unusually satisfying evening for me, with my hopes vanquishing my fears: The Departed thankfully winning the Oscar over Babel (my worst fear), and Mr. Scorsese winning at long last, and even Alan Arkin after a 38-year hiatus—though not good-sport Peter O’Toole. But for me, the night belonged to Ms. DeGeneres, even though some snooty journalists didn’t think so. And I liked Nicole Kidman’s flaming red dress in a sea of flesh colors—and Kate Winslet sparkled, too. And Maggie Gyllenhaal as well. Oh, be still, my restless heart.

Stars Align in Zodiac: Cast Saves Fincher’s Shaggy-Dog Psychodrama