Zodiac (U.S, 2007) * * * *
D: David Fincher
I've never been a big David Fincher fan, perhaps because I've only seen two of his films--Se7en (aka "Seven" for those of us who get a headache when we see that neologism) and Alien 3 (both cuts). Se7en I liked very much, at the time; it was a gorgeously pitch neo-noir played out like Dante's trip through Hell, and with a boldly pessimistic ending. To this day I haven't seen Fight Club. I know. I'll get around to it.
But with Zodiac you can count me as a fan. I know Fight Club is famous for its style, but one of the best things about Zodiac is how restrained it is; there are "stylish" moments--including a subjective shot in which Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) sees the Zodiac killer's writings and codes transposed over ever contour of the newspaper office in which he works--but they are few. For the most part, this is a police procedural with all the human texturing of a Serpico. I had to cross out the adjective "simple," for that might mislead you into thinking the plot and subject matter are easy to digest. In fact, it's a complex mystery, like a dozen Law & Order episodes squeezed into one 158-minute film, but bold enough to offer no real resolution. It's David Fincher setting aside his flashy techniques and urgently pressing evidence bags and coded letters into your hands: read this, really, and see if you see the patterns I see. It's exciting; I can picture him looking as demented and obsessive as Gyllenhaal does in the final scenes of the film.
More than once in the film a character says, "I want to talk about Zodiac," and the suspect or witness gets a look as if to say: "Oh, good luck with that." The Zodiac case--in which a serial killer terrorized San Francisco in the late 60's and early 70's, and taunted the police and SF newspapers by sending detailed letters of the killings and coded messages--is like a labyrinth in which every passage seems to cut closer to the center before hitting a dead end; it drives the brave travellers to the brink, and, the film suggests, unravels their lives. Gyllenhaal, playing San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Graysmith, is one; he loses his job and concentrates full-time on researching the Zodiac case, ultimately writing two Zodiac books, upon which the film is based. Detectives Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), Sergeant Mulanax (Elias Koteas), and Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) are others. While we see the murders brutally enacted, appropriately these moments are few and only occur in their chronology, so that as the film presses forward through time, we feel the trail running dry and the case growing colder. Fincher plays it straight: he doesn't feel the need to intercut flashbacks into the narrative to liven things up a little. Time moves forward. The killer slips away--with only the occasional letter or anonymous call to twist the knife. It's doubly frustrating to think that if these crimes were committed today, the killer would have been caught within a week or two. Every victim would have had a cell phone, for one thing; and DNA evidence would have allowed some leads to solidify more quickly (as it turns out, the research done for this film uncovered forgotten Zodiac letters and new DNA evidence which is being tested as I write this).
So here you have a story with no ending, stretched out to almost three hours in length, with hardly any action or violence to sustain interest. Nothing--much--happens. But that's not how it plays. Fincher is so enthusiastic about the material that it translates to the pacing and through James Vanderbilt's Oscar-worthy screenplay. The viewer becomes as obsessed with the crimes as the players; you can at least be assured that there is some reward to paying attention to the details, as many of the clues pay off--however circumstantial the ultimate evidence might be. This is one of the best mysteries I've seen since L.A. Confidential; like that film, you're treated to a real Hollywood rarity (these days): an ensemble cast. The central character is the Zodiac case, not Robert Graysmith; so when it's necessary we follow the cops, or the victims, or the newspaper crew, depending on where the highest moment of interest can be found. The most appropriate shot might be a striking bird's eye view of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the freeway disappearing into white mist below. The point of view is purely objective, yet everything is surrounding by an obscuring fog...