By Noel Vera
Dir: David Fincher (2007)
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
published in Businessworld, 6/1/07.