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Thursday March 8, 2007 9:12 pm

Zodiac Review: Fincher’s Tour de Force

Zodiac PosterAfter a five-year hiatus, director David Fincher is back with Zodiac, a slow, introspective thriller written by James Vanderbilt and based on books by Robert Graysmith and official police files chronicling the notorious San Francisco serial killer.

In the late 1960s, the San Francisco Chronicle receives one of the first letters from the Zodiac killer, a partial cipher detailing the gruesome deaths of his first victims and his intention to kill again.  What begins as a unique gimmick attached to senseless murder becomes a calculated plan to confuse and manipulate San Francisco police and news media, leaving the city in a state of panic.  Robert Graysmith, a young cartoonist for the Chronicle, grows obsessed with the Zodiac and, with the help of some local detectives, sets out to uncover the truth behind his identity.

Zodiac stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, and Chloe Sevigny.  Rated R.

The opening scene sets the tone for this cerebral crime drama: two teenagers, on their way to get a bite to eat, stop along a dirt road to share an intimate moment.  An ominous vehicle slowly approaches, stops, then quickly drives away; the lovers breathe a sigh of relief.  Then, in the distance, the tires screech and the engine roars.  He’s coming back.

The aforementioned segment lasts somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen minutes.  It is quiet and nervous, almost unbearably suspenseful, and quite matter-of-factly says, “I hope you all went to the bathroom, because you aren’t going anywhere for a long, long time.”  The scene, like the rest of the 2 hour and forty minute film, takes all the time you need to completely understand the weight of this decades-long ordeal and the overwhelming loss of life, career, and sanity concerning all involved.

Everyone knows that David Fincher has mastered the psychological thriller – in Se7en he took us through a serial killer’s obsession with the seven deadly sins; in The Game we watched Michael Douglas descend into paranoia as the world he once knew crumbles beneath him; in Fight Club Edward Norton transforms from corporate lackey to anarchist with the help of a nihilistic entrepreneur; and in Panic Room he played with our collective sense of safety when three armed men, bent on finding a hidden fortune in an old house, struggle to extract and kill a mother and child hiding in a secured room.  In Zodiac, Fincher again plays with human psychology and the tortuous trepidation often found therein, and, perhaps without knowing it, makes a unique, laudable statement about filmmaking conventions.  The near three hour film not only adequately represents the length of the Zodiac killer’s reign, but does so in the face of movie studio politics and norms that aren’t often defied with such conviction by a director.  Allegedly, Paramount asked Fincher to cut the film’s run time, but he refused, and as a result the studio opted to release the film in March rather than January, a time when theater attendance is down and studios often unload the films expected to bring in fewer profits.  In a recent interview with PopMatters.com, Fincher was quoted as saying:

“The studio knew from the beginning this film was not another `Se7en,’ even if that may have been what they hoped for. The things that made me want to make it may be some of the same things that other people find problematic. I liked the idea that there was not a neat ending, But I also find the ending satisfying, because it’s real, it feels true. Some things just don’t get wrapped up neatly. Sometimes, you just have to put things away, call it done, say `I’ve done the best I can do according to what I believe in,’ and get on with it.”

Fincher’s thoughts on the film transcend the fictional story and seem to frame his own ideology in directing it.  In an effort to garner all the facts, Fincher – along with producer Brad Fischer – spent months researching the actual Zodiac killer, interviewing witnesses, reading police reports, and conferring with Robert Graysmith, the main character in the film and author of two books on the subject.  Fincher also grew up during the Zodiac’s heyday and lived in the Bay Area during the murders.  In every sense, Zodiac is an example of exemplary director immersion and diligence, and despite his rebellion, the film remains at number two at the box office as of this review, just under the middle-aged, chopper-riding Wild Hogs.

The performances are all perfect – a product of everything Fincher gets involved with: Gyllenhall shines as a naive but clever cartoonist, Robert Downey Jr. perfectly executes the affable, coke-snorting reporter Paul Avery (who knew?), and Mark Ruffalo is…well, I’m in love with Mark Ruffalo.  As far as I’m concerned, the man can do no wrong.  Each actor plays a role worth noting and the performances will surely be a veritable grab bag come Oscar time. 

In order to enjoy Zodiac, you don’t need much: a willingness to sit a bit longer to fully understand a real-life saga, a belief in artistic license and unchallenged expression, and a large bladder.  The bladder issue can be averted if you’ve got a catheter lying around (damn, wish I’d thought of that earlier!), but the film is worth the anguish, even that last hour of leg crossing and squirming.  If you’re up to the challenge, you’ll get to see the first must-see movie of 2007.  And after two months of mediocrity, that is a much-needed triumph.



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