Matt McKenzie’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is such a brilliant work from Fincher. With Panic Room coming out in 2002 this is the biggest gap between Fincher films, other than the current period since Gone Girl but we've gotten the gift of Mindhunter in that time. And hey, if a long gap between films means you're gonna craft masterpieces than by all means take your time.
The style that led to Mindhunter is very clearly present here, especially in any scene where police are questioning people. There are numerous times where Ruffalo and Co. question suspects in what really feels like a dumber version of what we see in Mindhunter (not because this isn't as good but just because the men in Mindhunter are more knowledgeable about it). This is also another gorgeous use of Fincher's signature blues and yellows. Honestly despite Fight Club's last shot being my all time favourite, I think this might be my overall favourite Fincher film from a visual standpoint. The visual effects used to bring old San Francisco to life are much cleaner than the use of CGI in Fight Club and Panic Room, and the film overall just feels more polished. The cinematography is really fucking great, the shots, the lighting, it's all just really great. I never really noticed the music in this film, but it in no way needs music to remain gripping.
Other than the gorgeous visuals, there are 3 reasons I think this film is so engaging and such a stand out.
1) The killer himself. Obviously culture has a sort of obsession with serial killers, which I think is largely in part due to the alien nature of their actions. Most of us wouldn't kill a bunch of people, so the reasoning and methodology of someone that did fascinates us, similarly to how deep sea or space exploration do. And of all the infamous serial killers, The Zodiac is one of the most interesting. The fact that this case is unsolved is incredibly unsettling, and despite that being known the film never loses any intrigue in its mystery. People also tend to love a good puzzle, which makes the Zodiac's clues and symbols something incredibly interesting to people. And lastly, a personal reason I'm fascinated is because of the relative tastefulness. When a serial killer is just a killer, I'm intrigued. When a serial killer rapes his victims I lose some of the intrigue because I just find it disgusting. So although I obviously don't condone murder, the fact that the Zodiac from what I know didn't rape anyone and didn't have a high kill count, as well as his unique puzzles, makes him all the more of a fascinating case to me.
2) the second reason is that this film at its core isn't about the killer. This is a film about obsession and addiction. The tagline "there's more than one way to lose your life to a killer" rings brilliantly, as we see over this near three hour crime epic the way that these people are affected. Gyllenhaal's character spends years obsessed, and we see the way that affects the way people see him, and the way it hinders life with his wife and kids. With RDJ's character we see a downwards spiral that leaves him unemployed and drunk. And with Ruffalo we see the emotionally taxing struggle with not being able to crack the case. Also shoutout to Jimmi Simpson in the last scene, doing a great job in limited time showing the lasting effect of surviving something like this. Obsession is such an interesting theme to tackle in film, and the fact that the film focuses so much on it rather than just spewing facts about the Zodiac Killer is a really awesome choice.
3) The final reason is the aggressive degree of tension Fincher crafts in some scenes. This is a crime film, and I wouldn't even consider considering it a horror film, yet it has some scenes that genuinely scare me. Each scene with the killer is so gripping and stressful it is insane. It also isn't done through music, it's done through cinematography, clever blocking, and great acting. We never see his face in these scenes which is incredible, and each one crescendos into crazy violence that somehow surprises me. The scene with the woman and her baby is honestly one of the best crafted scenes I've ever seen. It's a scene that could have been made with obvious dramatic irony where we know he's the killer and what is going to happen, and it could have been cartoonish, but we don't know for certain. We know a man offered to help with her tire, then that he clearly did something wrong with it, but we never know exactly what is going on. She gets into his car and leaves us stressed out not knowing who the man is, rather than us know she's for sure about to die. The fact that she has a baby only increases the tension, as we've already seen people slaughtered, and now may have something happen to a baby. He then so nonchalantly says he's going to throw the baby out of the moving car before he kills the woman, and we are left in shock. She of course ends up throwing herself from the car so we don't see her killed or the baby dead, but when he says that line the horrific imaginary it produces is absolutely haunting. I'm kind of glad it's been so long since I've seen this film, because I completely forgot about that scene and it seriously got to me.
I don't think this is Fincher's best film, but as this marathon and just being a fan of his has shown, being his best is a tough fucking job. This is a brilliant crime epic tackling some unique themes based on the subject matter, and delivering some of the most unsettling scenes in his filmography. Magnificent film