Thursday, March 08, 2007

Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher's second foray into the serial killer genre he helped popularize is not a thriller like his first. This change in tone is apparent straightaway. Se7en's title sequence was loud, creepy and strange --you imagined it was coming directly from some psychotically unbalanced psyche, possibly the killers own: all disorientation, decay and dread. You'd think that any film that begins with a double homicide on the 4th of July, as Zodiac does, would also start with a bang. But the film sidesteps your expectations frequently. This is a hushed drama in a genre that thrives on shock cuts and cheap seat-jumping sound cues. When the titles arrive in Zodiac they're merely names on a screen. Their only embellisment is a gently transparent codebreaking fade --a reference to the killer's fondness for ciphers. This is a serial killer film that's not really about the killing, the serial killer, or even the victims.

Quick Kills and Slow Deaths.

I'd like to see it again for more conclusive evidence but I'm not even sure that Zodiac gives you a protagonist. Or if it does, I'm not sure that it's Jake Gyllenhaal. He plays Robert Graysmith the Chronicle cartoonist who eventually wrote the best seller on the unsolved murders upon which this film is based. Graysmith is important to the proceedings but there are many characters in the sprawling cast and he disappears for big chunks of the narrative. The main character is just happens to be the investigation itself. Against the storytelling odds, it's a doozy of a protagonist: complicated and evocative, charismatic but frustrating, explicitly revealed and still unknowable.

Notice that there are 3 glasses of Aquavelva on this table. I'm imagining the third is mine
only Fincher edited me out of the scene -damn him! That is so my kind of drink.

Movies based on real life events are often shoehorned into traditional story structures, with character intro beginnings, plotty action-packed middles, and resolution-filled endings. And if you need this in a movie, you're unlikely to respond to this particular procedural drama. Zodiac is rather like a continuous middle. Yet it has ample intrigue to offset its lack of conventional satisfactions. Credit Fincher's fussed over but sharp-eyed direction and the fine pace-attentive editing from Angus Wall (Panic Room) and Kirk Baxter (Killing Joe). Zodiac doesn't so much build momentum as maintain it, but it does so rather well. The film is also great looking thanks to one of the best cinematographers in the business, Harris Savides (Birth). David Fincher isn't often mentioned as an actor's director but he's sure-handed there as well. Jake Gyllenhaal is as earnestly appealing as ever and the supporting cast deliver their characters with precision. One casting decision that intrigued me was the choice of three actors (Gyllenhaal, Anthony Edwards and Mark Ruffalo) with relatively high or quiet voices and one (Robert Downey Jr) with obvious personal demons that match his characters. The story is brutal but there's a fascinating counterpoint softness and vulnerability to the men inside of it.

I admired Zodiac more than I loved it but it held my attention throughout (and this viewer isn't particularly drawn to procedurals in the first place). Fincher offered up abundant details, sometimes tangentially, as he attempts to build an ambitious portrait of a time, place, and community in static unresolved fear. Even without the more traditional narrative trappings of the genre, Fincher's latest holds your gaze and engages your mind. The Zodiac killings, he illustrates, had a disturbing ripple effect. The initial victims die quick gruesome deaths. But the resulting investigation offers up more victims still. Their deaths are slower and of the social, marital, career and soul variety. With disturbing inevitably this true life drama becomes a killer too. The Zodiac claimed he was collecting slaves for his afterlife. This investigation mimics his body count (metaphorically speaking) and turns his delusional purpose into an unfortunate reality: you can watch it pick off each cast member one by one: it eventually enslaves them all.


Glenn Dunks said...

Thanks for just confounding the issue of this movie even more.



Beau said...

What'd you think of John Lynch's work?
Honestly, I've never even heard of the dude before, and he gave one of the most frightening performances I've seen in years. love? :(


who'd he play?

Anonymous said...

John Caroll Lynch he played Arthur Leigh Allen

Jason Adams said...

I loved him, but kept picturing him as Margie's stay-at-home duck-painting husband in Fargo.

Anonymous said...

Excellent film with cinematography that is unlikely to be topped this year.

Anonymous said...

Also, I was worried I would keep picturing Lynch as Drew Carey's brother on The Drew Carey Show.

I was really surprised how incredible he was in such a small role. In the hardware store, the look he gave Gyllenhaal when he realized who he was... frightening and masterful.