Let me just say right out that I am not one of those David Fincher junkies. You know, those people that prattle on and on about Fight Club (frequently the same people that will go on and on about Magnolia), and how cool it is, while they throw around words like consumerism without being really sure what it means.
I’m not one of those guys.
But I do think Fincher’s a very talented guy. Alien 3 is a better movie than people give it credit for (I love Charles S. Dutton’s performance), but it is much weaker than the previous two. I think it’s fair to say that Se7en was one of the most stylistically influential films of the 90′s, and I’m a big fan of the movie. I like the first half of Fight Club and I think it’s tremendously inventive visually, but the story really gets absurd to me when ‘fight club’ becomes a conspiracy, and the big twist ending (which I won’t reveal on the off chance that you don’t know what I’m talking about and are, for some reason, still reading) that makes about as much sense as High Tension‘s. Panic Room is just a competently made genre pic, and maybe an homage to Hitchcock.
All this is by way of telling you that when I say Zodiac is a very good movie, you understand where I’m coming from. It’s easily Fincher’s best film, and what’s amazing is how different it is from his other movies. It’s like he shoved all that passion for wild camera moves and washed-out color schemes into recreating the period in every way. This film is seeped in the seventies, in the acting and the camera work, the music, and my God the production design. Zodiac is everything Spike Lee wanted Summer of Sam to be.
The first half of the story focuses on Inspectors Dave Toschi and William Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) after they are assigned to the early Zodiac murders, and San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose coverage of the story nets him a personal letter- and threat- from the Zodiac. Hovering around Avery is cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is intrigued by the cyphers Zodiac sends to the papers. It is only in this half of the film that Fincher gives us scenes of the Zodiac’s murders, which bear almost no resemblance to anything from Se7en. Zodiac has none of John Doe’s pinache or conviction, which makes him even more frightening.
The second half of the film takes place four years after the murders have gone cold and Zodiac has ceased sending his taunting letters to the papers. The focus shifts to Graysmith (on whose books the film is based), and his growing obsession with solving the murders. He hounds witnesses and detectives, chases red herrings, and garners enough publicity that he starts to receive anonymous phone calls that we are led to believe are from Zodiac himself. Finally, pieces start to fall into place, but not until Graysmith’s obsessions have cost him, and everyone involved with the case, a great deal.
What’s amazing about this film is that, like Apollo 13, we know basically what’s going to happen going in, yet Fincher stages everything in such a way that it still generates enough suspense to sustain the film, even over the long running time. James Vanderbilt’s script is a wonder of expository dialogue, and covers a long stretch of time with tremendous energy (Vanderbilt has written an even longer script adapting Richard Clarke’s book Against All Enemies that may be even better than his Zodiac script, if it ever gets made.)
Of course, Fincher’s ability to maintain interest is due in no small part to his cast. Robert Downey Jr. deserves an Oscar nomination for this. Really. If Paramount had played the cards right (maybe a late October release), it would be in the bag, but Academy members have about the same long term memory as Tommy Chong, so it’s likely he’ll be forgotten come awards time. I’d never been terribly impressed with Mark Ruffalo (even in Collateral), but here I can finally see the appeal. He is engaging and often quite funny, and handles the info-laden dialogue extremely well. Anthony Edwards is equally good as his partner, and it’s clear to me that the guy deserves more work; he could emerge as a great character actor in the next ten years, if he plays his cards right. Gyllenhaal is very good, and those wide eyes of his convey fear and obsession equally well. But I still think Brokeback and Jarhead (I’m a rare supporter of that last one) are better performances.
In keeping with Fincher’s eye for detail, there are some wonderful performances by actors in smaller parts. Once you know who John Carroll Lynch is, you will start to see him everywhere. He’s probably best known as Drew Carey’s brother Steve on The Drew Carey Show, but he was terrific as Frances McDormand’s husband in Fargo and perfectly cast as the bartender in Beautiful Girls. Here, he is creepier than you would ever dream (based on the filmography I just rattled off) as one of the prime suspects. Equally good in small parts are Elias Koteas and Donal Logue as cops from other jurisdictions looking into the murders, Brian Cox as a famous lawyer sought out by the Zodiac, and Chloe Seveigny in one of those thankless parts as the wife whose family is destroyed by her husband’s obsession. More and more she reminds me of a young Sissy Spacek, who tackled a very similar part equally well as Mrs. Garrison in JFK.
To say too much more might take away from the great pleasures of this film. It is long and heavy on information, but it is also brilliantly constructed and acted and thematically resonant on a number of levels. Is David Fincher, notoriously a perfectionist at the expense of his actors, that different from Robert Graysmith by the end of the film? I have no doubt that Fincher’s trailer bore a startling resemblance to Graysmith’s apartment during the shooting of the film. Similarly, I have no doubt that it costs him something personally to be so obsessed with what winds up on screen. And for that reason alone, it seems important to me that more people see this movie. I really believe it’s worth his sacrifice, Graysmith’s, and the two and a half hours of your time.