2007Director: David Fincher
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo
or years, film lovers have watched the career of David Fincher, hoping he’ll outgrow the cocoon of his own macabre cleverness and emerge, butterfly-like, as a great director. His new thriller Zodiac is his first film in five years, and the first in which he seems capable of—or interested in—that kind of growth. Fincher’s outsized ambition is to do for the police procedural what Heat did for heist movies and The Godfather did for gangsters. He wants to turn a serial-killer movie into an American epic. It’s a tall order, but if he doesn’t quite succeed, he comes close—and these days, close is enough.
Concerning as it does the hunt for a killer, the movie feels like a companion piece to Fincher’s influential 1995 breakthrough, Se7en. That film was imagined, but Zodiac is based on a real string of unsolved murders that stunned San Francisco in the early ‘70s. Dubbing himself the Zodiac, the killer taunted police and media with letters, cryptograms, and encoded messages, filling headlines and paralyzing the city with fear. This chilling account is a sturdy premise for a movie—it’s been used by Hollywood before, most famously in Dirty Harry—but Zodiac wants to be more than just a whodunit. It isn’t about solving a mystery; it’s about not solving one, and how the lack of a solution derails the lives of cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).
For Fincher, the Zodiac murders are an opportunity to examine early ‘70s America in all its media hysteria and pop culture marginalia, from “telefaxes” to Star Trek. He isn’t nostalgic for the era so much as fascinated by it, pushing through the foggy atmosphere and taking note of all the strange details—huge, gleaming automobiles, summer lawns bursting with bright fireworks, newsroom TVs with typewritten signs reading “Do Not Lower Volume.” Fincher loves these tiny scraps of Americana, and his cataloging of them, while a killer is on the loose, becomes a great punchline: even though all of San Francisco is terrified, they still have time for Slinkys. And the requisite oldies soundtrack is slyly incorporated; at one point, Fincher deploys the glorious “Young Girl,” and the woman beside me started singing along.
Somewhere after its sensational first hour, Zodiac threatens to lose its footing. The story gets bogged down in the investigative minutiae—in warrants, circumstantial evidence, and case files. The date-and-location stamps that accompany every scene get distracting and sometimes silly; before a raid on the trailer-park home of one suspect, we are told not only the location of the park, but the specific space the suspect’s trailer was parked in (A7, in case you’re planning a visit). As the film rolls into its third hour, this exhaustive comprehension becomes a serious flaw—whole sequences are built around pursuing worthless leads and correcting discrepancies between file cabinets. Couldn’t somebody have pulled Fincher aside in the editing room and told him movies don’t get bonus points for having annotated bibliographies?
Fortunately, the care taken with performances redeems the movie’s obsessive-compulsiveness. Gyllenhaal, Ruffalo, and Downey Jr. have the kind of big, shapely roles that don’t come around often, and they all do career work. I loved the way Ruffalo’s detective Toschi whirled about a crime scene, turning up clues and directing cops like an orchestra conductor, and how Downey Jr.’s eyes dart about when he’s discussing the Zodiac—he’s turned on by the thrill of the chase. Not since L. A. Confidential has a big movie juggled an ensemble cast so deftly—there’s even room for juicy supporting turns by Anthony Edwards, Clea Duvall, Chloë Sevigny, and the great Brian Cox. As the ‘70s roll into the ‘80s, and Zodiac’s cast continues to grow, it starts to feel like an Altman movie: Nashville in the Bay area, with more blood.
And there’s a lot of blood. Following the lead of Fincher’s Se7en and Fight Club, Zodiac does not flinch from scenes of graphic violence. Like his heroes Hitchcock and De Palma, Fincher loves the high cinematic qualities of the lead-up to, and fall-out from, violent death—one startling murder is scored to Donovan’s psychedelic bubble-gum hit, “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” But where Se7en was content to linger, fetish-like, over Grand Guignol gore, the slaughters in Zodiac are sudden, surprising, and—a crucial distinction—starkly realistic. The murder sequences feel more violent than they actually are, and though they’re as painstakingly staged as De Palma set pieces, they seem organic, as if Fincher just happened to be there to catch them on film. He no longer needs the restless, flashy camerawork of Panic Room and Fight Club to set our pulses racing—he relies instead on the changes in his victims’ faces, as their lazy conversations freeze up with sudden dread.
Fincher has come up with a serious picture this time, the first in which his impeccable style—the surgical cutting, sleek angles, and gleaming mise-en-scene—is subordinate to character, narrative, and most importantly, feeling. He’s not after an effect with Zodiac; he’s after an emotion—by the film’s end, when he nails the landing with a simple, unsettling exchange of glances in the back of a hardware store, he’s taken his first step toward greatness: He’s learned that less is more.
Zodiac is currently playing in wide release.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-03-08