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Just the Facts: David Fincher's Zodiac

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Paramount Pictures)

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Zodiac
Directed by David Fincher
(Paramount)

Reviewed by James Hughes

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper in September 2006, director Brian De Palma seemed winded by the white-knuckle press tour for The Black Dahlia, his flawed but refreshing crime drama based on James Ellroy’s boilerplate novel about the unsolved slaying of a Tinsel Town starlet. With each question asked by the reporter, one could imagine the khaki shoulder straps on De Palma’s trademark safari jacket rising and falling with another shrug. “If you want to see CSI or Law and Order,” he said defensively, “they’re on every night. It all fits in a neat bag, but to me procedural dramas are extremely boring.” Though De Palma’s core admirers managed to sustain themselves on the husk that surrounded The Black Dahlia — primarily the trickery of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who earned the film’s lone Academy Award nomination — most audiences simply cast it aside as an unsuitable alternative to the open-and-shut cases portrayed in the crime shows glowing on their televisions and iPods.

Before its release in 2006, The Black Dahlia had been orphaned by a round robin of action directors — chief among them David Fincher — and the lack of ownership or intrinsic connection to the material was exposed on screen. In that same Guardian interview, De Palma declared, “This is James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia, don’t ever forget.” Zodiac, the film Fincher migrated to after ditching Dahlia in the weeds, also centers around a notorious unsolved case, and, like De Palma’s approach to Ellroy, obeys its source material down to each letter (maybe even each serif). However, the Zodiac blueprint is derived largely from the “original case files” of the serial killings that terrified Northern California throughout the late Sixties and Seventies. Though not entirely a procedural (in the spirit of Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men) or a deliberate attempt to seek justice through celluloid (Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line), the film unfortunately falls into a somewhat awkward crevice between the two — a struggle of popcorn vs. police tape.

Like Black Dahlia, Zodiac was helmed by an exceptionally talented visual stylist whose greatest attributes were unable to run wild, due largely to a strict devotion to source material that was inherently — and, at times, aggravatingly — inconclusive. Adding to the dilemma, both films were saddled by heightened expectations after a noticeable absence from its directors, both fan favorites. (De Palma’s last film, Femme Fatale, was released in 2002, the same year as Fincher’s Panic Room, which also focused on a woman in distress.) A recent New York Times piece headlined “The Mystery of the Missing Moviemakers” included Fincher in a roundup of talented directors who have taken a long hiatus before stepping to the plate with a new project. Using filmmaker Kimberly Pierce, whose Boys Don’t Cry was released in 1999, as an example, the article posed a basic question: “Seven years amounts to a yawning stretch in the prime of any filmmaker's creative life. And what happens if the new film fails?”

Far from a failure — the film still bears Fincher’s stamp of complete directorial control and an immaculate attention to detail — Zodiac will nonetheless be challenged by an unfortunate shift in audience expectations, particularly at the multiplexes. A nation that has now embraced wholesale torture as a prerequisite for Saturday night entertainment may not be wowed by Zodiac’s commitment to forensic realism, especially when the main engine driving the film’s marketing is that it’s courtesy of the director of Se7en. Fincher’s 1995 smash re-energized the detective genre, and the film remains his signature work, largely because of its dazzling visuals and surreal, Heironymous Bosch crime scenes. However, suspiciously absent from Zodiac, which stalks into theaters nationwide today, are those same visual devices and the cathartic celebration of cinematic gadgetry that made Fincher the auteur of the Blockbuster set. His catalogue of technically savvy feature films — Alien 3, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club and Panic Room — is the most dominant descendent of the bloodline of the quality action films from the Eighties and early Nineties, back when studios like Orion Pictures and directors like John McTiernan and Paul Verhoeven ruled the roost. In the Nineties, Fincher’s work had that rare alchemy of art and commerce that earned endorsements by Stan Brakhage on the one hand and Harry Knowles on the other. To this day, a Fincher film can wind up on critics’ “best of” lists while also earning props and shout-outs on college kids’ MySpace pages. (Tyler Durden is the new Kilroy).

With Zodiac, Fincher has chosen to work with a restricted palette, and in many ways that constraint is entirely understandable. For the past decade, there have been two guarantees in American moviemaking. One, that every memorable Quentin Tarantino music cue will be poached and misappropriated as the jingle to sell everything from stuffed-crust pizza to luxury cars. And two, that the new techniques developed in a David Fincher film will be immediately robbed by lesser commercial and feature directors and exploited to no end. For examples, look no further than the spat of films that tinkered with the same ENR process that Fincher and cinematographer Darius Khondji perfected in Se7en, or the periscope macro-photography that invaded the inner-workings of every inanimate object in Fight Club and Panic Room down to their spinning neutrons. Unlike Tarantino, however, Fincher remains a force in the commercial and video world, making the cannibalization of his work by his peers all the more apparent. (In the Nineties, Fincher revolutionized the look of Nike’s advertising, as he did with numerous global juggernauts like Levi’s and Pepsi, and was responsible for the highly-sexualized, Herb Ritts-like images in Madonna’s “Vogue” and “Express Yourself” videos, not to mention Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun,” a precursor to Se7en.)

But by clutching his cards closer to his chest in Zodiac and thwarting off his would-be thieves (eyes on the table, Schumacher), Fincher has deprived the audience of the delight of feasting on the visually stimulating, intricate sequences they anticipate before dropping $11 on a Fincher film. Throughout Zodiac’s 160-minute running time, which includes some plodding sequences (newsroom meetings, road trips, pots of coffee at the local diner), there are few moments where Fincher’s greatest talents truly sparkle. One exception is an odd, Godard-like sequence where we witness the Zodiac killer slay two victims napping in the sunlight along Lake Berryessa. The contrast of the golden grass and the Zodiac in full black, hooded garb is enough of a chin-scratcher to give the film some legs. But that dose of the macabre is soon drained of its vital nutrients after paperwork and police bureaucracy take over. (If Almodovar’s Volver is a meditation on robust cleavage, then Zodiac takes the crown for the most passionate examination of stationary and manila envelopes.)

The location of that particular murder sequence, with its picturesque rolling hills, is reminiscent of the real-life surroundings that inspired the cinematic vocabulary of another young Bay Area visionary — George Lucas. (Fincher, who was raised in Marin County, earned his first screen credit as a camera assistant on Return of the Jedi at Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, the epicenter of San Francisco filmmaking.) In early interviews to promote Zodiac, Fincher repeatedly stated that the film appealed to him and became a personal conquest because of his childhood fear of the Zodiac killer, who did, after all, make explicit threats about attacking the same school buses he rode in the morning as a seven-year-old. Having grown up further south in Los Angeles in the early Eighties, I can remember my brother and I zipping into the house in a panic after realizing we’d lingered in the backyard a moment too long, afraid that Night Stalker might emerge from the bushes and snatch us up. But whereas that particular case had eye-catching clues that led to an actual conviction — remember the AC/DC hat? — the Zodiac killings remain unsolved to this day. It’s almost as if Fincher’s film is a testament to the obsessive level of aggravation that JFK or SETI conspiracy theorists live with on a daily (hourly?) basis.

Unfortunately, the actor selected to shoulder that satchel of Sisyphean ulcers is Jake Gyllenhaal, who delivers a wooden performance as a newspaper cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle turned full-time Zodiac sleuth. This marks the second time in recent memory, along with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, where the audience is led to believe that the passing of decades can be represented solely by frosting Gyllenhaal’s 26-year-old temples with a touch of gray. Though he has some moments of grace, Gyllenhaal is upstaged by Robert Downey Jr, who shines as a pill-popping, I’ll-snort-anything gonzo journalist for the Chronicle who, like Gyllenhaal’s character, is lured deep into the Zodiac’s web. However, Downey all but vanishes halfway through the film, and consequently inhales the film’s oxygen in the process. (Another day, another snort.)

The film that opens with a spooky claw-hanging-from-the-doorknob murder scene is soon swallowed by ream after ream of plump case files. At times, it feels as if the viewer has been issued a homework assignment — "Here, you solve it." There are moments, however, where the audience can remove its bifocals and bask in the bigger picture. The photography, as always in a Fincher film, is superb, and comes courtesy of Harris Savides, another veteran of video-making (he’s the one who baked his film reels in an oven to achieve the sunburned tones of the Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” video, and submerged his camera in the bathtub with Fiona Apple in “Criminal” to nail the unseemly look of homemade pornography). Shooting in digital, his Woodstein lighting scheme in the Chronicle newsroom is tack-sharp, and aerial footage of San Francisco has never looked so spectacular.

By and large, Zodiac is a testament to Fincher’s range — he’s an enormously talented filmmaker — and he deserves ample credit for trying his hand at a proper police procedural. He’ll no doubt show similar range when he takes a stab at adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald with next year’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But for now, the main thing audiences will wish the Zodiac killer had taken a stab at was slicing through all that redtape.


Quick views
Brian De Palma's Guardian interview
David Fincher's seminal Nike ad, "Instant Karma"
The San Francisco Chronicle on the Zodiac killings
More on the ENR process
Videos filmed by Harris Savides: "Closer" and "Criminal"


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