In honor of the upcoming Gone Girl, I’m reviewing each film in David Fincher’s staggering career.
Some films, it is said, have enough depth and dimension to the story and the style that multiple viewings aren’t just possible but required. There are famous examples, like Stanley Kubrick’s cipher-esque puzzles 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, which are teeming with so many symbols and cognitive tricks the full picture is incomprehensible at first. But other than David Fincher’s Fight Club, a famous contemporary example for a film where repeating viewings led to a drastic reevaluation of the movie, the complexity of Fincher’s films is not always immediately obvious. One ironic example is his serial-killer saga Zodiac, which many critics agree is his best film. The density of James Vanderbilt’s script is extraordinary, with a dazzling amount of information constantly chewed out by the huge ensemble of characters, each of whom you need to keep track of and their relationship to one another and to the case. It’s a daunting task for any viewer, but despite this, like the case itself, Zodiac never felt finished. It never felt complete, like it did too much or too little, and needed to either focus the case or make its narrative net even wider. The film never added up, but repeat Blu-ray viewings have, also like the case, jostled free new insights that give the film clarity and meaning. I now accept it as a slight masterpiece, not just as a rousing procedural, but as a perceptive parable of life in the information age and the post-modern search for truth.
Zodiac is Fincher’s epic, chronicling the Zodiac Killer investigation over a staggering, exhausting 22 years. Of the serial killers who gained celebrity in the U.S. media, none are as notorious as the Zodiac. From 1968-1969, he killed at least five people around the San Francisco Bay area, attempted a couple more, and sent strange letters (that were accompanied by a cipher) to newspapers, police stations, and even private citizens. The investigation, which the film details with staggering specificity, hooked reporters (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr.) and detectives (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) into its web of false leads and inconclusive findings. Robert Graysmith, who wrote the books upon which the film is based, is a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle and serves, more or less, as the film’s protagonist. He plays the part of the two leads from All the President's Men, one of Zodiac's biggest influences. The narrative structure of Zodiac is itself maze-like, with the main protagonists shifting each act to cycle genres and vantage points, but it’s Graysmith who wrangles the messy happenings of the case into as cohesive a form as probably possible.
The film begins, strikingly, on the Fourth of July with fireworks gently exploding in the sky through a wide shot of San Francisco. Fincher establishes his setting with a nostalgic knowingness, showing us what it felt like to be in San Francisco circa 1969 instead of a literal representation. The opening minutes have a heightened bliss usually only felt as a memory, particularly through a tracking shot where the camera is mounted inside a car facing out the side window. We see kids lighting off bright fireworks in the driveway and families gathered laughing. It’s easy to see these gorgeously shot opening moments thinking “what a time to live.” We get swept up in the dream of 1969 San Francisco, so when a gun with a gigantic silencer penetrates the barrier of the car window, it’s not just the two young lovers that are executed, but our idyllic fantasy Fincher’s conjured for the audience. A month later, the first of 18 Zodiac letters arrived at the San Francisco Chronicle, setting forth a media frenzy engulfing the country.
In an excellent Playboy Interview, Fincher remarked he didn’t know what he was really doing until Zodiac. It’s easy to see why, not because his other films aren’t cinematically sound -- obviously they are -- but because it was the genesis of his now iconic style of smooth pans, meticulously lit medium shots, and punchy editing that gives scenes a start-stop rhythm that keeps tension high. More than anything, his style was a reaction to digital moviemaking, using the Viper camera to do take after take after take to hone in performances to the point of perfection. Fincher chased perfection in Zodiac the way Graysmith chased the Zodiac killer, and the results are breathtaking. The Viper let us peer into the night unlike what was ever possible in cinema history, and there’s no film more appropriate for its introduction.
The rhythmic editing is the style that won Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall Oscars for editing on The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it keeps Zodiac moving at lightning speed despite the huge length. Initial reviews remarked it was Fincher’s most restrained film, showing a radical departure from the hyper-stylization of Fight Club and Panic Room, and indeed this was interpreted as a maturation of him as an artist. This is only half true, since while Fincher’s camera is often still and flourishes are less loud, they still dominate the film.
Fincher donates minutes at a time to moments of pure cinema. The introduction of the Zodiac letter isn’t a simple mail delivery. Instead, it’s an elaborate sequence following the letter’s arrival to the building, to the mail sorting room, onto the cart, and then a cut up tracking shot through hallways and rooms until it’s eventually opened, all crosscut with a tracking shot Graysmith walking to his desk that day. There’s a hundred simpler ways to shoot this scene, but Fincher made it a stylistic statement. Pay Fucking Attention to This. Contrary to how it’s talked about, Zodiac is one of Fincher’s most stylishly executed films, and each artistic moment couldn’t be better chosen. The impossible birds-eye view tracking shot of a cab coasting through San Francisco’s glowing streets is the sophisticated cousin to Panic Room’s mechanically precise visuals, and the camera’s chilling gaze makes one’s spine tingle. This is to say nothing of the murder scenes themselves, which Fincher wisely doesn’t intrude upon with stylization. He lets their horror speak for itself.
The zodiac killer may have only five confirmed killings, but the case itself has wrought many more casualties. Everyone who comes in contact with the investigation leaves it scattered. Scattered and regretful. Vanderbilt has his own version of Kübler-Ross’ stages of grieving, only instead of losing a life, they tried to find the Zodiac. First they wield idealistic vigor like a weapon for investigation; we’ll catch ‘em. Once that’s past, there is the aching for easy solutions and fast answers. Next, when there are none to be had, they bitterly reject attempts to placate the truth, lashing out at the last white knights of justice. Robert Downey, Jr.’s fantastic pre-Iron Man performance captures these stages with poignancy. He begins a triumphant crusader of journalism, putting himself in danger for the integrity of a story; he’s sarcastic and has his head in a cloud (of, more often than not, alcohol), but his work ethic is both driven and disciplined. But by the last few times we see him, grey hairs have crept into his black mane, and he sits burned out in his filthy house-boat wearing a royal blue robe like fallen royalty, a King Lear fallen from the regality of the mainstream media.
Zodiac feels long not because the pacing lags but because by the time we creep to the two-hour mark, we’re as exhausted as the characters. Our brains are drowning with facts we can’t resolve, witnesses and suspects we can’t rely on, and heroes who have lost their way. The longer the film continues, the more we hunger and obsess, lumbering through the procedure of discovering the identity of the Zodiac killer. The procedural stops being a genre and takes hold as a psychological state, and, by the film’s final act, our heads our spinning. But we, like the cartoonist Graysmith, trod forward not because we’re reinvigorated by new clues, but because we must. Zodiac is a seething metaphor for life in the information age, where how one should allocate their priorities is an ever-increasing uncertainty. Graysmith is a grandfather to Aaron Sorkin’s version of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, disconnected from people, himself, and society by drowning in data and the compulsion to master it. Information gathering isn’t a hobby. It’s an addiction. We’re left in a flurry of voices all claiming relevancy and truth, but there’s no light to shine through them. Zodiac is Fincher’s Rashomon, and all that’s left is the deceitful visage of truth; we’re back to Plato’s Cave and all we have are shadows of reality. Stare into the abyss and Fincher stares back into you.
Other Fincher Reviews:
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