Why I Love… #24: Zodiac

Year: 2007

Director: David Fincher

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Greysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector David Toschi), Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery), Anthony Edwards (Inspector William Armstrong), Chloe Sevigny (Melanie), John Carroll Lynch (Arthur Leigh Allen), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli)

Genre: Crime Drama

David Fincher makes beautiful looking films, but beautiful in a way different from most other A-list Hollywood directors. His primary colours are browns, greens, greys and pitch blacks. It’s a slick, noir-y tint that bestows them gravitas, and one of many reasons why Se7en, his breakout feature, worked so well. That film is a masterpiece, the clear high-water mark of the 90s cluttered fascination with serial killers. But there’s a film of his that I love even more. One of the very best films of the last decade, and one of the least celebrated. Zodiac.

Again, Fincher finds himself preoccupied by the idea of a serial killer, only this time a real one. Fincher grew up in San Francisco at the time of the zodiac killings, and as such has a nostalgic attachment to the horrors of those days, months and years. The excitement and the fear. His was a childhood tainted by the zodiac’s dangers. He became obsessed with it, like an itch that couldn’t be scratched. And so, Zodiac. A film – fittingly – about obsession.

His exacting attention to detail seems more focused on Zodiac than any of his other movies to date. Perhaps because it is based on actual events. Anyone who has seen the exhausting behind-the-scenes material about the making of this film will know of his Kubrickian exactitude here, even to the extent of taking actual survivors back to the scene of the crime to ‘get it right’. It pays dividends. Zodiac is his most adult piece of work. Over 2 and a half hours he pours over the angles, the theories, the procedural of a protracted criminal investigation, and it doesn’t feel too long. Indeed, one gets the impression we’re only scratching the surface.

This grim fascination is shared by Robert Greysmith (Gyllenhaal), the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who refused to let the mystery of the zodiac lie. Gyllenhaal puts in quite possibly his best work as Greysmith, a man aware of his own debilitating obsession, yet equally unprepared to let it go. But this is no one man show. Ruffalo and Downey Jr. share top-billing, and both deserve as much credit. Ruffalo is marvellous as Toschi. It’s a grounded, world-weary performance that impresses through its demystifying of the hot-shot detective. Toschi was the original Bullitt, doncha know. But here he’s just a guy doing his job and searching for animal crackers.

Of the three players Downey Jr. is the joker in the pack. His Paul Avery adds comic relief to what might have otherwise been a particularly dour tale, but even then this is counter-balanced by a sadness as his alcoholism becomes all-consuming and he spirals out of the story like a zodiac victim himself.

And so a word about the killings. Zodiac treads a fine line perfectly. These are real crimes, so there was no way Fincher could glamourize them. Horrible acts. They are presented simply as moody documentary reconstructions. They are not explicit or gratuitous. Curiously, because of this, they are far more affecting than countless sensationalised serial killings from so many lesser movies. The zodiac’s methods also defy the movie genre’s temptation to complicate things. These are not the ‘inventive’ killings of Jigsaw. Zodiac uses a gun or a knife. Practical. A means to an end. And all the more chilling.

But if you come to this film expecting a serial killer movie, be prepared to get disappointed. This is an intelligent, purposefully paced procedural drama first and foremost, though light-years ahead of the tiresome and conveniently plotted machinations of CSI. No eleventh-hour two-minute reveal here. The film crosses decades and ends… in uncertainty. This film’s big pay-off is a look, not a conviction.

And, as previously mentioned, an essay on obsession. Both of a sick mind’s unknowable motives, and of our own fascination with such a mind. Greysmith pursues the zodiac even when the police have all-but given up. Even when it puts his own life in danger. And his family’s lives. Toschi too goes beyond the call of duty, but even he eventually knows when to draw the line. And that is another question Zodiac poses. How much is enough? When have you taken something too far?

The film is also a masterwork of production design. The changing times of the late 60s and early 70s are evoked superbly, from the sets and retro-fitted locations, to the subtle, painterly use of CG to augment the scenery. Where previously Fincher’s love for CG proved obtrusive (as in Fight Club and Panic Room), here it is used more artfully. To bolster the story being told, not overpower it.

Zodiac should have been better received. It was critically acclaimed sure, and there were scattered award nominations, but not nearly as much attention as it deserves. It didn’t help that it came out in a flurry of some of Hollywood’s best output for years. 2007 was a phenomenal year for movies. No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford… as well as a number of breakout independent films. Juno, Lars And The Real Girl, Control etc. It was a busy time. If it had been released either a year earlier or later, one wonders, would it have had more of the limelight? More recognition?

The devil is in the details here. The attention. Compare the theatrical cut to the director’s cut. One of the main additions is an extended section of… nothing. Two minutes of a black screen in the middle of the picture to underscore a jump in the timeline. It was taken out for fear people would think the film was over. That Fincher put it back in suggests that, like Greysmith, he’s still not finished. Still perfecting. Still obsessed.

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