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Zodiac Zodiac on DVD

From the director of Fight Club comes what could almost be called "Fright Club" for its creepy telling of the true tale of a California serial killer.

Zodiac is what the killer named himself and he spent a lot of time writing letters and cryptographs designed probably to taunt the police investigating his seemingly random killings. The killings started in the late 1960's and continued for many years after that, and it was not only driving the police nuts, it was drawing an otherwise apparently normal newspaper cartoonist into an obsessive quest for the killer's identity.

The movie follows three protagonists, police Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), reporter/drunk/druggie Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.)  and cartoonist (and eventual author of the book on which the movie is based) Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) in their quest for the truth; it spans the decades of the manhunt.

Zodiac was obviously a whacko, but he wasn't stupid – and he knew how to play the police and, especially, the media. The media play an important part in society, but they aren't the knights on white chargers they'd like us to believe they are – and so we see them mulling over how to deal with Zodiac both in relation to their public duty but also as to how it could affect their careers, circulation and their competitive position.

The police come off best here, though even they are beholden to reality and therefore must work on the cases assigned to them and not necessarily the ones they want, by which we mean that while Toschi and his partner's heart may have been consumed with finding Zodiac, he only showed up periodically and in the meantime there were plenty of cases demanding the attention of an understaffed and overworked police department.

Then there are the "third parties," such as famous lawyer Melvin Belli (played here by Brian Cox), who gets involved in the case and actually arranges a meeting with Zodiac (or does he?) via a TV talk show. We particularly enjoyed there references to Belli's famous appearance as an evil alien force on Star Trek, but that's really a sidelight that adds some amusement and needed comedy relief to an overall very creepy movie.

The murders we get to witness are brutal and violent, but other than those brief but scary scenes we're never beaten over the head with the violence and, in fact, it's done quite tastefully, all things considered. Instead, director Fincher builds a suspenseful tale that, at some points, just may have you yelling "Don't go there!" or "Don't do that!" at some of the characters on screen.

Besides his great use of suspense and an overarching feeling of dread, his casting is also outstanding, and the actors get to play characters that change over the course of the film.  Gyllenhaal starts out as a bit of a flake, insecure in his gig, but as he becomes obsessed with finding Zodiac he risks losing everything important to him, from his job to his family. Okay, maybe still a flake, but...

Downey is famous as a drugged out character in his own right, and his character is a drugged out boozer as well; maybe that's a reason why Downey's portrayal is so great: or maybe it's just that this guy can act. During the course of the movie his character, who at one point is threatened by Zodiac, descends from being a low rent WoodStein of Watergate fame to a pitiful has been.

Ruffalo has perhaps the most frustrating role, not so much for how he must portray his character, but for the compromises and sacrifices his character has to make if he's to keep his career on track. He's a cop in the real world with real world responsiblities beyond an old case that, frustratingly, has never been closed.

And watch for Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, in a small but quite appropriate role.

Do we get a happy ending? We won't spoil your enjoyment of the film by letting you know (news junkies may already know how it ended in real life, but that doesn't necessarily mean the story didn't get Hollywoodized - and we aren't going to spill the beans).

The DVD is presented in either anamorphic widescreen, 16x9 TV compatible, or Pan&Scan, under separate cover. We got the widescreen version, fortunately, and the picture quality is top notch, with rich color and exemplary sharpness and detail. This comes in handy in a film that has a lot of scenes set at night.

Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and it's also very good.

Our copy didn't come with any extras, other than a couple of trailers (one of which is for the upcoming Director's Cut Edition, which is kind of a kick in the pants to everyone who buys this one!).

In the meantime, if all you care about is the movie, we recommend this one highly.

Zodiac, from Paramount Home Entertainment
157 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1, 16.x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey,  Jr.
Written by James Vanderbilt, directed by David Fincher

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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