David Fincher’s Zodiac
When the Oscar nominations were announced in late January, I was pretty let down when I saw that David Fincher was nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Not because I don’t like Fincher; God knows he’s been pushing the medium to its limits for the past two decades with films that are both absolutely whacked out and mind-blowingly original at the same time. The problem was….I wanted him to be nominated for one of those films.
Button is a technical masterwork; the look, the costumes, the sets, the effects, all of them top notch. The technical nominations do not bother me a bit. But the major nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay I take issue with. Ultimately, the film just doesn’t work. It takes a potentially wonderful premise of a man experiencing life backwards and turns into a soppy love story with some easily dismissed clichés about appreciating life since death is right around the corner. Very enlightening, guys.
The toughest thing to stomach about the film is that Fincher has no passion for the story or the characters. He loves the setting (a smoky, mystique-laden New Orleans evolving throughout the twentieth century) and is able, through the use of costumes, music, cadence, and cinematography, to make it a character in the film. I was also taken aback by how realistic Brad Pitt’s face looked when digitally placed upon the heads of smaller actors embodying Benjamin as a boy. It’s a marvelous achievement in CGI, but when looking at the film as finished product, it feels like one of the few things that really interested Fincher.
His heart wasn’t in Button, and the film made me nostalgic for one that should have been his first nomination, 2007’s Zodiac. It may sound strange, but of all the envelope-pushing films that Fincher has done over the years (roll call: Alien 3, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room), Zodiac feels like the bravest choice. And it isn’t because Fincher had the courage to blow up buildings or put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box; it was because he had a good story to tell that he knew had the capacity to bore people, but didn’t fuck with it for the sake of making it more palatable. He did things his way, and wound up with his best film to date.
Zodiac begins with one of the most chilling depictions of violence I have ever seen onscreen; Mike Mageau (Lee Norris) is picked up by his girlfriend, Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes), on the evening of July 4, 1969 and they head up to Blue Rock Springs, a patch of parkland overlooking San Francisco. They see a strange car moving closer to them. We may be familiar with this scenario from countless horror movies, but Fincher plays it just right, keeping the scene from the couple’s perspective as the unknown driver slowly inches along. He eventually pulls away, and relief washes over them. But it’s not long after they’ve considered their next move that the car has returned with the driver approaching Mageau’s window and unloading his weapon into the two lovers as Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” blares on the soundtrack. Mageau survives, Ferrin doesn’t, and the killer, who will become known to the police and newspapers as Zodiac, lives to see another day.
It is at this point that Zodiac could have taken any number of different directions, but Fincher and his screenwriter, James Vanderbilt, choose the right one. The film does not fall into the trap of becoming another conventional serial killer movie, but instead explores the psychology of Zodiac’s pursuers. There will be more killings along the way, but Fincher’s focus lands on Det. Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a San Francisco cop who spends years pursuing the case, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), an alcoholic journalist who becomes a Zodiac expert, and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), an earnest cartoonist who starts to follow the case and becomes obsessed with solving it.
The film is simply masterful at portraying the obsession of these men. Toschi, a veteran cop who had served as the inspiration for Bullitt and Dirty Harry, is not a superman but an honest cop who works doggedly to find a solid suspect in the investigation. He is eventually led to Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), hulking and ominous, who knew Darlene and, during an interrogation, reveals himself as a good possibility for Zodiac.
After discovering Allen, Toschi spends another year building up enough evidence to get a search warrant on the suspect’s house. When he is told he has the wrong man, he frustratedly says “I don’t know if I’m mad because I wanted it to be him or because I just want this all to be over.”
A similar drive ensnares Graysmith, who Gyllenhaal plays like an overgrown boy not quite ready for the grownups’ table. When the investigation slows in the late seventies, Graysmith takes up the Zodiac mantle privately, doing his best to piece things together from stolen case files, library books and Toschi’s generosity with information. We know from the opening credits that Graysmith wrote the books on which the film is based, but his desire seems to run past professional glory into a deep place of the soul: “I have to look into his eyes and know that it is him,” he tells his wife (Chloe Sevigny), ready to leave him, about his pursuit of the killer.
I said earlier there are other killings in the film, and Fincher executes each of them masterfully. One shows Zodiac ambushing a young couple in a public park during broad daylight, tying them up while he takes their money and keys, assuring them he just wants their car. Fincher again keeps things from the victims’ perspectives as they find out what he really wants, and the result is legitimately terrifying.
Historically, we know that the Zodiac was never caught, but the film is content with this outcome. Fincher and Vanderbilt don’t reengineer the story to create some false, satisfying conclusion. The film leaves a great deal in the audience’s lap and forces it to absorb a lot of information: dates, names, locations, and times are bandied about endlessly by the characters, but Fincher executes things in such a way that never slows the pace of the film (which, for being close to three hours, is feverish) and never confuses us.
What is impressive about the film is the way that it consistently sidesteps the audience’s expectations in favor of simply telling its story. It is fascinating to watch Fincher draw so much tension out of a case that has, essentially, never been resolved. But that is also the tragedy the film presents us with; in the end, as the two men stare at each other across a coffee shop table, Toschi and Graysmith are only able to take comfort in making their best educated guess about Zodiac’s identity, and they try to find release from their obsessions.
Zodiac drips with the fascination of a director who knows he has a doozy to tell and simply wants the space to tell it his way. It is surprising to me that the film, which certainly wasn’t cheap and definitely isn’t a crowd pleaser, was made by Paramount. I fear that Fincher may have only made Button, also released by Paramount, in return for them allowing him to make Zodiac with little interference. On second thought, I hope that is what happened. If he’s gotten payback out of the way, maybe he can get back to work.