David Fincher is a detail guy. Notoriously demanding of his casts and crews, he’s only too willing to do 60 or 70 takes of a single scene or to insist that every element of a set, down to the last pencil and paperclip, meet his personal specifications. It’s this quality that makes his films as fascinating for his fans as they are frustrating for his collaborators, but it can also backfire on him — focus too much on the details, and the big picture may elude you. That’s what made his last film, Panic Room, such a disappointment: Moment by moment, elaborate tracking shot by elaborate tracking shot, it’s nearly perfect, but all those brilliant little stylistic gewgaws ultimately don’t add up to much, because they rest on the brittle foundation of David Koepp’s by-the-numbers script.
Fincher’s persnicketyness is on full display in his latest thriller, Zodiac, and it’s mostly to the good. He excels at using the visual elements of a film to situate the story in a particular world, but this is his first time using that approach to recreate a historic period — mostly the late 1960s to mid-’70s — and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it done better or more subtly. From the old logos of Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. that open the film to the costumes, hairstyles, cars, interior design, technology — everything seems right on target, yet the period elements never call unnecessary attention to themselves. The soundtrack is rife with music of the time, but it never has that feeling, so common to period movies, of having just picked the top five hits of a given year. The choices — particularly songs like Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and Three Dog Night’s cover of “Easy to be Hard” from Hair — not only evoke the period of the film and the mood of the particular scenes in which they’re used but make ironic acknowledgement of the alienation and brutality of the killer, adding resonances that reverberate across the film. And Fincher’s not just interested in setting the appropriate tone but in making his recreation as factually accurate as possible, going so far as to dig through original police files and interview central figures in the case. Every element is considered — even bit parts, such as the killer’s victims, are cast and costumed with a painstaking effort to give us an accurate sense of who these people were and what they might have been like.
In service to the story, Fincher has toned down his distinctive, flashy visual style, but that doesn’t mean he’s gotten bland and predictable. Harris Savides, who worked as an additional photographer on Se7en and was Fincher’s cinematographer on The Game before shooting Gus Van Sant’s last four films, shot Zodiac using the Thomson Viper, an uncompressed digital video camera that captures images with all the richness of 35mm film but with even greater clarity, particularly in extremely low light, so that Fincher’s elaborate camera setups — and there are some brilliant ones here, particularly in some show-offy instances of anchoring the screen to a moving object so that it remains stationary while its surroundings change — have a crispness and intensity that is absolutely exhilarating. And the slight amber tint to the images — which recalls both the film stock of the time and the look of faded photographs — gives Zodiac a slight historic distancing that only reinforces its sense of reality.
The film opens with a long, brilliantly composed tracking shot from the interior of a car, the passenger’s window forming a frame at the edge of the screen as we glide down a suburban residential street from the point of view of Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes), who will be the Zodiac Killer’s third confirmed victim (the total number remains speculative). She picks up her date for the evening, Mike Mageau (Lee Norris), and drives him to a remote area, where they park the car and we wait in terrible and thrilling suspense for the killing to begin. From there, we watch as the deaths mount and the killer — who helped create the cinematic archetype of the arrogant serial murderer who taunts police and the press with clues to his identity and future plans — begins sending letters to Bay Area newspapers, often containing elaborate cryptograms, in which he threatens further killings and dares the cops to catch him.
They certainly try, though they’re hampered by his tendency — probably strategic — to commit his crimes in multiple jurisdictions and often in isolated, unincorporated areas. The investigator of the Ferrin and Mageau shootings, Vallejo Police Department Sergeant Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas), has one piece of the puzzle, while Napa County Sheriff’s Department Detective Ken Narlow (Donal Logue), who investigated the Zodiac’s later attack on Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard, has another. But the guy with the most information — and the biggest obsession with the Zodiac — is San Francisco Police Department Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who, with his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), investigates the murder of a cab driver in the Presidio Heights area of the city. Already something of a hotshot, having been the basis for Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, Toschi’s involvement in the Zodiac case makes him a local celebrity against his wishes. An intense, dedicated cop with no patience for bullshit and little personal vanity, Toschi’s only real concern is catching the bad guy, which makes the killer’s mockery all the more frustrating for him. Much more vain and less serious, though equally intense and obsessive, is reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) who covers the investigation for the San Francisco Chronicle and becomes entangled in the case when his reporting catches the killer’s attention. Lecherous and dissolute, Avery is the kind of character that Downey excels at, though we may have seen him play this type a little too often. Still, his performance is never rote, and his effete manner and dry humor help to balance the strenuous machismo of the cop characters who otherwise dominate the early scenes.
For at least the first hour, Fincher doesn’t take a single wrong step, but the film slackens somewhat as the focus shifts to Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Chronicle political cartoonist and amateur codebreaker who becomes fascinated, then obsessed, and eventually consumed by the case. Graysmith is a good egg, a former Eagle Scout who doesn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or curse, and Gyllenhaal’s mousy earnestness suits the character well at first. But as time goes on, the case grows cold, and Graysmith moves to the center of the film, conducting an independent investigation as he develops a book on the killings, Gyllenhaal remains too much the boyish naïf; he lacks the unnerving intensity of the true obsessive.
The film is based on the two books that Graysmith wrote about the Zodiac, which creates other problems as well. Those early scenes of the killings and the police investigations are admirably taut and suspenseful, no moment wasted, but Fincher and screenwriter/producer James Vanderbilt focus too much time on the details of Graysmith’s investigation, following him down every blind alley, so that for every scene that either reveals important new information or provides genuine chills — and there are plenty of those — there’s also a scene or two that isn’t strictly necessary, that either duplicates another scene or just doesn’t add enough to justify its existence in a movie that’s two hours and 38 minutes but probably would have worked better at, say, two hours 10. And the movie buys into Graysmith’s theory of the killer’s identity — plausible but unproved and probably unprovable — without leaving any real room for doubt. It’s a necessary evil, I suppose, as audiences are unlikely to be satisfied with any thriller that leaves the truth as open-ended and ambiguous as it remains in the Zodiac case, but wholeheartedly buying into Graysmith’s speculations seems out of sync with Fincher’s otherwise scrupulous adherence to fact.
It almost feels like bad manners, though, to kvetch about such flaws in a film that otherwise delivers on so many levels. The visuals and the performances (excepting my Gyllenhaal quibbles) are across-the-board fantastic, and there are both scares and suspense aplenty, even for those already fairly familiar with the case. More than that, though, Fincher has made a film about real murders that delivers those chills without sensationalizing or trivializing the victims. They are acknowledged as real people and given respect; one of the film’s standout scenes — the murder of Cecelia Shepard (Pell James) and attempted murder of Bryan Hartnell (Patrick Scott Lewis) — does so much to humanize those two people and make them authentic and complex that it could stand on its own as a brilliantly observant short film. It’s a rare treat, for those of us fascinated by true-crime stories while somewhat embarrassed by that predilection, to walk out of a movie about a serial killer and feel not ashamed but as though we may just have seen an honest-to-God work of art.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Zodiac / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | March 4, 2007 | Comments ()