Monday, February 9, 2009
David Fincher is certainly no stranger to crime thrillers: his breakthrough Se7en remains one of the best pieces of neo-noir ever produced. But his return to serial killer dramas, Zodiac, stands as his finest achievement. Based on the real life murder spree of the unknown "Zodiac Killer" in the San Fransisco Bay Area in the late 60s and 70s, Zodiac follows the lives of the detectives and reporters who got caught up in the case that spanned numerous county lines and decades and was never officially solved.
If nothing else, it's a bold film: Fincher opens the film with a string of the Zodiac's murders and then structures the other two hours or so as a police procedural in which a handful of people who become obsessed by the case try to sort out the various clues and cut through the red tape to find the truth: who is the Zodiac Killer? The early murders play out with a horrifying quality, not only because of how Fincher understates their deaths but because we know these people actually died, and for no other reason than they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After the Zodiac murders a young woman and seriously injures her boyfriend at the start of the film, he sends in a cryptic letter to the San Fransisco Chronicle, admitting that he shot the two teenagers and promising to kill again if the editors don't print a portion of a cypher he sent to them (he sent the other two parts to other newspapers). Crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) gets on the case, and is soon joined by an unlikely aide: cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who loves puzzles and obsesses over the killer's cypher.
For over two hours, Graysmith tries to put all the pieces together as all those around him give up; Paul Avery becomes paranoid when the Zodiac announces an intention to kill him, and eventually loses everything to alcoholism before winding up with emphysema. Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) works with Avery and Graysmith but eventually gets buried under the red tape involved with the cross-county investigation. That in particular made the Zodiac so brilliant: by committing crimes all over the place he prevented any one person from figuring it all out.
But Graysmith never gives up; years after the Zodiac stops killing, he tries to consolidate the various pieces of evidence into a book in the hopes that, if all the facts are placed in one location, maybe someone can figure out the identity of the killer. People repeatedly ask if the intrepid, doe-eyed young man is "some kind of Boy Scout or something," to which he chirpily responds "Eagle Scout, First Class!" His dogged determination wins him the grudging respect of many of the detectives who find themselves routinely astonished by the things that Robert digs up.
Technically, the film employs Fincher's visual genius, but in a far more understated manner than his usual effects. He uses digital tricks not to add in the expressionist nightmares of Se7en or the fantasy splendor of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button but to cast a dreary gloom over the Bay Area. Fincher never shows us the media phenomenon the murders created, but he captures the mood of a city gripped in fear with its muted colors and dour feel. It works so well that it's a little hard to make out the effects at all
I've heard some people complain that the film fails because it doesn't tell you who the killer was. Some people are just plain stupid: is Fincher really supposed to solve an actual cold case for the purposes of entertainment? Personally, I find the film to be astonishing; Fincher throws a lot of facts and figures at us for 2-1/2 hours and not once did they bore me. At its heart, Zodiac is a police procedural about police procedurals, whose hopelessness and cynicism is tempered by the knowledge that even if crimes go unsolved, a few individuals are willing to do their best to solve them no matter the cost. Fincher has a few modern classics under his belt, but here is his first true masterpiece.