Zodiac, 157 mins, rated MA 15+, opening in cinemas, and
Infamous, 118 mins, rated M, opening at Dendy Opera Quays,
both on 17 May 2007.


(This review appeared in the May 2007 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal)

Here’s a film that should appeal to most lawyers: it’s about detail - the frustrating, sometimes mind-numbing detail of police procedure.

Zodiac is based on two Robert Graysmith books (Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked) about a real life serial killer who terrorized California in the 1960s and 70s. The screenplay is by relative newcomer James Vanderbilt, who has written something that is tightly-constructed, precise about process, and yet sprawling in scope, ranging over 2 decades and many suspects.

This story has already inspired several films. For instance, there’s a scene in Zodiac when the police go to a special screening of Dirty Harry (Siegel, 1971), in which a serial-killing sniper called “Scorpio” is terrorising the people of San Francisco.

The director is David Fincher, who has already conquered the serial killer genre with his film Se7en (1995), in which the killer uses the seven deadly sins as his theme. Fincher also directed Fight Club (1999), a film I specifically dislike, but which many people consider a masterpiece.

Until now, I would have classed Fincher as a patchy director, so it is a pleasant surprise that this film is absolutely gripping, technically proficient, and intelligent. It is also long, at over 2 1/2 hours, but anyone who is used to concentrating will have no problem with it. And even if you miss some of the detail, the film covers so much ground that you will not feel the lack.

Zodiac is almost an antidote to the grim Se7en, in which we were forced to endure murder after murder until the horrifying finale. Here the murders (frightening and realistic as they are) are over in the first third. This leaves us the rest of the movie to concentrate on what is required to track down and charge a killer, with all the obstacles and complications – professional and personal – that entails. The film’s tagline is “There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer”. By the end of the film, the lives and careers of the detectives and newspaper people have been changed forever, each becoming obsessed with, and worn down by, the case.

So this film is more than just a crime story. The criminal is a publicity-seeker. Zodiac taunts the San Francisco police with letters and cryptic messages, presenting 3 newspapers with an ethical dilemma: should they agree to his demands and publish his writings on their front pages?

The film features 3 main stars, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo (The New York Times described them as “a trio of beauties”). Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist with the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s green and eager, in contrast to crime reporter Paul Avery, played by Downey as a strutting peacock of a man. Glib and talented and fuelled by alcohol and cocaine, he bewitches Graysmith and antagonizes the police, eventually becoming too close to the case and descending rapidly into debauched seclusion and illness. It’s an electrifying performance by Downey.

Ruffalo (In the Cut, Campion, 2003, You Can Count on Me, Lonergan, 2000) has one of his juiciest roles as Detective Dave Toschi, the real-life San Francisco detective who inspired the characters portrayed in Bullitt (Yates, 1968), Dirty Harry, and TV’s The Streets of San Francisco. Toschi’s special fast-draw holster was the model for Steve McQueen’s in Bullitt. But Ruffalo’s cop is much more down-to-earth than the other fictionalised versions. He’s working to put together a case, not just to gun down a killer. We see in him the frustration of trying to a transform a mountain of circumstantial evidence into something concrete enough to justify a search warrant. He knows who the killer is, he just can’t prove it. We see the toll that takes as the process is dragged out over many years and several jurisdictions.

The film’s music score is by the impeccably-credentialed David Shire (The Conversation, Coppola, 1974, All the President’s Men, Pakula, 1976). He blends original composition with carefully-deployed pop from the period. Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man will never sound the same again.

Another fascinating aspect of Zodiac shows us how far we’ve come in the world of technology and communication since the 60s and 70s. Then, police detectives often didn’t even have fax machines. Files were all hard copy, and difficult to share. Details were often lost, forgotten, or deliberately not shared in the course of protecting one’s own turf. It’s a wonder any crimes were solved at all.

Around a decade before Zodiac’s first murders took place, and half a continent away, a murder case was solved – that of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas. That story was told recently in Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005) with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. It has retold in this year’s Infamous, starring Britain’s Toby Jones as Capote. His seems a truer Truman because, being relatively unknown, Jones brings no baggage with him. He can simply be Capote.

Like Zodiac, Infamous looks at the problems of the detective solving a crime, and the personal toll it takes. At one point Truman exclaims: “But I don’t care whether the crime is solved or not!”. “I do,” replies Detective Alvin Dewey, “The Clutters went to our church”.

Infamous shares other concerns with Zodiac. It examines the ethics of the writer about crime. Capote sees the criminals he’s writing about not as people, but as characters in his novel. But his friend Nelle Harper Lee is troubled by this. She tells him: “You shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing: the truth is enough”.

Both Zodiac and Infamous are thoughtful and meticulous films about crime, police work, and punishment: a rare double treat for lawyers.