(2007) dir. David Fincher
I’ve found director David Fincher to be one of the more interesting directors currently working in Hollywood. When he first came on the scene with Alien³ (1992), I was not impressed. I haven’t gone back to see if my feelings have changed since then regarding the film, but his subsequent films have been consistently interesting, occasionally brilliant and typically dark, starting with the riveting Se7en (1995), the clever but mixed bag of The Game (1997), his best film Fight Club (1999), and his underrated thriller, Panic Room (2002). He’s good with keeping his film titles concise.
Zodiac is a fictionalized narrative that plays closely to the facts of the events in the San Francisco Bay Area’s notorious (and never captured) serial killer, the titular Zodiac. Starting on the 4th of July 1969, the film opens with a very nice digitally altered shot of San Francisco and then tracks through the window of an anonymous car, driving through the suburbs in the darkness as the fireworks pop in the sky. The film in many ways, I think, assumes foreknowledge of the events it depicts, and this opening view, because the perspective is an unknown driver, leads one to assume it is potentially the view of the killer. As it turns out, it is the perspective of his first verified victim.
Fincher is a good manipulator in the classic style of Hollywood narrative, but this film is a drama, an unfulfilled, unfinished, still open-ended story, whose tension is sustained, but never released. Of course, knowing that the Zodiac killer was never caught, one knows that there cannot be the big final shoot-out, court trial, execution, what-have-you that one might see in a more typical narrative. The film’s drama focuses on the lives of the men who were deeply affected by the case and the crimes, the cop, the cartoonist obsessed with the case, and the self-destructive reporter who rode the wave of the publicity. The acting is actually quite good and Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robert Downey, Jr. all respectively perform well.
The film is solid and engrossing, though overly long, perhaps. Fincher uses music very effectively throughout, especially the Zodiac‘s theme, Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” really evokes a psychedelic nightmare on a metropolitan area, a culture, whose innocence and traditional Americana is giving way to a change. The film is a period piece, not just in outfits and hairstyles, but Fincher seems very interested in the cultural changes, the world changes, and the way these effect the men at the heart of the story. They are all played out with a strong nod to their integrity. The film seems in some ways less critical or ironic than any of Fincher’s other films. It’s not exploitative, the way that it could easily have been. The murders are not bloodless, but far from over-the-top and the search for the Zodiac killer, and the film’s position of whom it suspects is not relentless and damning. Though Fincher indicates quite clearly by the end of the film who the best suspect is, the whole twisting and false leads and theories add to the devolving chaos at the center of the protagonists world, not just in terms of an unresolved, unsolved case, but at their lives that devolve along with it.