If Steven Spielberg used to be “the kid who’d never grow up,” I always figured David Fincher would always be “the disaffected teen who never grew up,” which is why Zodiac is so surprising. It’s a mature, thoughtful work, one I wouldn’t have even associated with Fincher if I hadn’t known. It’s calm and thoughtful, opening with the old Paramount and Warner Bros. logos, with a score from David Shire–the goal doesn’t seem to be to emulate a 1970s movie (the hit-heavy soundtrack wouldn’t have happened yet), but to reorient the viewer into that time period. When Fincher gets to the early eighties, he’s got this establishing shot at an airport and a plane takes off and there’s something really beautiful about it. Planes take off, whatever, three a minute and on sunny days, like this day in the film, it probably looks really nice… but I’d spent two and a half hours with the Zodiac killer, so it really jarred me. Made me appreciate Fincher not as an aesthetically pleasing director, which he’d always (ideally) been, but as one who could find the extraordinary in the everyday, which he’d never been.
Zodiac shifts its attention between the crimes, the reporters, and the police. For a while, it’s all the crimes and the reporters and for a while it’s all the crimes and the police. It seems like, at the beginning, it’s going to follow Jake Gyllenhaal–he’ll lead the viewer through the story–but then he disappears and, even before he does, it becomes clear Zodiac‘s not following a character-centered narrative. It’s not even about the effects of obsession on the characters. It shows the effects, but it’s really just a very straightforward narrative–first of the Zodiac killings from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s point of view, then from the investigating inspectors (I love how San Francisco calls them inspectors), then from the book writer (Gyllenhaal) as he does he research. It ought to not work, since that narrative model is mostly gone these days. In some ways, the roving narrative and the music, it reminded me of Summer of Sam while watching it, then I had to correct my interior dialogue not to defame Zodiac with such a comparison.
Of the actors, Ruffalo is the best. He’s first billed, but his character remains the most–not enigmatic or sketchy, but off-center–then he has a little scene towards the end and I realized his story throughout the film occupied a whole layer of the narrative and it was great and he was doing some amazing work. Amazing Ruffalo work is, probably, the best acting there is to be seen anymore. As the Chronicle lacky then book author, Gyllenhaal’s good, maybe even excellent, since the film makes no bones about his character not exactly being relatable. He’s supposed to be a little lame. It’s the closest the film comes to making any judgment on its characters. Robert Downey Jr. really doesn’t have an above the title role, but he’s great when he’s in it, which is no surprise. It’s Anthony Edwards who gives the most surprisingly good performance, just because it’d never occurred to me he could be so good, which has more to do with me… well, no it doesn’t. It has to do with “ER,” but whatever.
I kept having to remind myself during the film, it’s not a good example of modern cinema. I was ready to skip down the street and sing the praises of American filmmaking like it was 1999 or something, then reality kept knocking, so I had to accept I’d just have to get Zodiac on DVD… It’s rather indulgent, I just realized; Fincher submerges the viewer and holds him or her down in that bathtub, not letting them loose until the final epilogue card fades. It’s an unbelievable achievement for him, a significant one for twenty-first century American cinema, and just a lovely experience.
Directed by David Fincher; written by James Vanderbilt, based on books by Robert Graysmith; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by Angus Wall; music by David Shire; production designer, Donald Graham Burt; produced by Vanderbilt, Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer and Cean Chaffin; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector Dave Toschi), Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery), Anthony Edwards (Inspector Bill Armstrong), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), Elias Koteas (Sgt. Jack Mulanax) and Chloë Sevigny (Melanie).