Let’s face it: There’s a good chance David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac is going to get shafted at the Oscars this year, for all sorts of reasons — among them the fact that it opened like eight years ago. But it’d be a particular shame if in its callow neglect of this film, the Academy (and any other organization that has yet to vote) ignored the marvelous work of Robert Downey Jr. as newspaper reporter Paul Avery.
Throughout his career, Downey has displayed a remarkable ability to evoke flashes of profound humanity where you’d least expect it. Whether he’s acting his way through acres of makeup in films like The Singing Detective and Fur or trying to make us actually like one of James Toback’s ridiculously narcissistic alter-egos in films like Two Girls and a Guy and The Pickup Artist, this is a guy who likes challenges. (Which is why we can’t wait for Iron Man. Sort of.) What’s the challenge in Zodiac? Fincher’s film ostensibly focuses on three key figures in the years-long Zodiac Killer case — reporter Avery, newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and outmatched inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) — but in reality, the film’s real protagonist is the hive-mind of obsession blanketing the Bay Area. By and large, the human characters in this tale aren’t given your standard (and often cliché) screenwriting tools of backstory or personal quirks or fleshed-out lives. These actors have to fend for themselves, living off the scraps James Vanderbilt’s screenplay throws at them. This is precisely the kind of situation in which Downey thrives. He brings to Avery’s early scenes a kind of swaggering, wisecracking aura, shot through with vulnerability — which pays dividends as the film’s relentless trajectory brings these characters down.
Compulsion and self-destruction are nothing new to Downey, whether he’s acting them out in fiction or in real life. And in its portrait of a society coming out of the sixties and plunging headlong into (and out of) the seventies, Zodiac becomes a film about those very things. Even though he gets significantly less screen time than nominal lead Gyllenhaal, Downey becomes the film’s chief human connect — the embodiment of nobility and charm, boozing and snorting his way into oblivion as the society he knows crumbles around him. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, and it is absolutely one of the best performances of the year. —Bilge Ebiri