By Noel Vera

Dir: David Fincher (2007)

Perhaps the single most surprising fact about "Zodiac" is that David Fincher directed it--one might think that Alan J. Pakula had been raised from his grave and given a far larger budget than when he did "All the President's Men" (1976), or that Sidney Lumet had been asked to remake his "Prince of the City" (1981) with a hunt for a psychopath at its center, or that Curtis Hanson--an excellent thriller filmmaker who raised the stakes mid-career when he made his epic "L.A. Confidential" (1997)--had suddenly developed a taste for serial killers.

Fincher, a music video director turned feature filmmaker, showed such taste early on; he first became famous for the grotesque "Se7en" (1995--about a man who staged his killings around the Seven Deadly Sins), but had already made an earlier film about a killer that happened to be nonhuman ("Alien3," 1992) and later, a film about a serial prankster turned terrorist ("Fight Club," 1999). Whatever the story, Fincher's camera seems to constantly seek out and focus on the character living or even temporarily thrown outside the norm (of society, of humanity) looking in, his actions dictated by his needs or obsessions.

A quick comparison of the two filmmakers should be instructive. I've always admired Hanson's attention to detail, storytelling skill, and gift for characterization, something that's kept him in good stead in films from "L.A. Confidential" to "8 Mile" (2002) to his latest this year, "Lucky You;" overall, he makes clearer, more coherent films than Fincher.

But with Fincher I've always had expectations, often disappointed by his not exactly disciplined approach--"Alien3" was a shaky-camera mess, "Se7en's" plot was preposterous (genius killer who slays to make a philosophical point?), and "Fight Club" was brilliant satire that degenerated into comic-book ludicrousness (a worldwide conspiracy of bomb-planting waiters?).

That said, there's a look to each of his films that often varied in tone and palette (from the ambers of "Alien3" to the murky grays of "Se7en" to the sumptuous sheen of "Fight Club"), but was almost always ringed by an encroaching, ever-present gloom. Few recent Hollywood filmmakers made shadows as menacing as Fincher and you suspect that if you ever opened up his cranium and peered inside, you'd find the world being viewed through similarly darkened lenses.

Then came "Zodiac," where Fincher successfully trains those lenses on a script (by James Vanderbilt, based on the books by Robert Graysmith (played here by Jake Gyllenhaal)) that either Pakula or Lumet or Hanson might have been happy to direct. The film covers the nearly ten years starting 1968 during which the Zodiac Killer terrorized San Francisco, and during which the police force tried to hunt him down; it goes on to trace Graysmith's investigations of the killer, past the publication of his book on the subject in 1986, and some time after that.

It deals with roughly twenty characters (portrayed by a cast of excellent actors, from Gyllenhaal to Robert Downey Jr. to Mark Ruffalo to Brian Cox to Chloe Sevigny, John Getz, Candy Clark, Elias Koteas, Charles Fleischer, Philip Baker Hall), at least half a dozen of them major, and ranges all over San Francisco (and some cities nearby), from the murder sites to the police precincts to the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle to even the apartments and houses of various people involved.

It's a huge, sprawling project, and a viewer might be forgiven for not getting all the particulars straight (this film, if any recent mainstream film ever did, demands additional viewings); more, there's so much story to tell, so much detail to wade through, that Fincher barely has time to illuminate the motives of anyone involved (the killer himself exists mostly as a glimpsed-at shadowy figure, a few brief scenes, and a quick climactic confrontation). Critics have cited this as a major flaw, but I see it as a change in Fincher's point of view, a change of heart, almost.

Ever a man to glory in the surface, even texture, of his pictures, Fincher here is using surface--what a man does in killing, and what people do in trying to capture him--to suggest the mystery of what goes on underneath (the surface of things, of one's cranium), in this particular case the extremes to which a man will go to obey his need to kill, accomplish, explore, question, believe; beyond that, the film's surface suggests that truism with which any ambitious artist must eventually come to grips, the ultimate unknowability of things, the sense that final solutions or answers are rare, or false, or often impossible.

Actually, Fincher seems to have been straining to evoke this throughout his career. In "Se7en," for example, we hear the killer's rationale, but we barely understand it, much less accept it at face value (as a detective so callowly put it: "You're a movie of the week. You're a fucking t-shirt, at best"); in "The Game" (1997) the nightmarish circumstances in which a man suddenly finds himself turns out to have (after two hours of chase and anguish) an all-encompassing explanation (and even when the credits roll, you wonder if that IS the final explanation); in "Fight Club" we never get a clear reason for the protagonist's split personality.

In each of these near-fantasy settings, however (Fincher's films almost always seem to be set a few years in the future, or in some alternate reality), the mystery seems more like a conceit to get an unlikely premise rolling; they're easy to accept because they seem so shallowly conceived--gimmicks to help a gimmicky director.

"Zodiac" is different: thoroughly grounded in the San Francisco of the '60s and '70s, it creates a familiar, even banal everyday world, one we've seen and come to take for granted after years of films and TV shows, here presented to us--thanks to Harry Savides' use of the Thomson Viper FilmStream Digital Camera--in all its larger-than-life glory (the inspiration was American photographer Stephen Shore's '70s pictures).

Occasionally Fincher would cut loose--an overhead shot of Paul Stine's taxicab, from killer's pickup to driver's death; a hilariously creepy visit to film projectionist Bob Vaughn's cavernous basement--but these moments seem more like baroque curlicues, to frame the essential realism of the film, a realism with slightly deeper shadows than one might normally expect.

The effect is unsettling, to say the least--like "Blue Velvet," David Lynch's vision of small-town life ("Zodiac" would be Fincher's vision of big-city life), we're given a glittering shell, and can't help but be aware of the void beneath; more, the portrait of obsession (the film isn't so much about the killer as it is the effects the killer has had on those hunting him) uncannily mirrors Fincher's own obsessive qualities in making this film (aside from the painstaking work of recreating '70s San Francisco, Fincher and his collaborators spent an additional eighteen months conducting their own investigation into the Zodiac case).

The two hour-plus film (the running time is roughly a hundred and fifty-eight minutes, and word is the DVD release will have an even longer director's cut) is arguably Fincher's Dorian Gray painting--a source of dark power, and Fincher's best chance yet for artistic immortality.

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First published in Businessworld, 6/1/07.

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June 15, 2007