A Decade On, David Fincher's 'Zodiac' Remains a Near-Perfect Masterpiece
If you ever feel bad about producing sub-par work after having made something that proved you could be capable of great things just think of the name James Vanderbilt.
James Vanderbilt is a screenwriter who in recent years has written, among other things, Andrew Garfield’s The Amazing Spider-Man, White House Down, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. He is also however responsible for adapting Robert Graysmith’s book of the same name into the screenplay for what is arguably the greatest movie by one of the greatest living American directors: David Fincher’s Zodiac.
From Zodiac to White House Down. Think of that when you feel down.
Or, really, just think of Zodiac in general.
If it don’t cure what ails ya, what ya got ain’t curable.
2007 was an odd time for fans of David Fincher. The previous decade had shown us what wonderful things the man from San Anselmo was capable of—with the excellent Se7en, the underrated The Game, and the now-fashionably-disliked-but-still-actually-great Fight Club all arriving within a few years of each other. By this point, no serious appraiser of the American movie scene could have dismissed out of hand Fincher’s place in its gallery of contemporary greats. But then the old millennium faded away, the first number on our calendars changed for the first time in living memory, and the next thing we would see from Mr. Fincher would be 2002’s Panic Room. Panic Room was a solid if unremarkable thriller with some admittedly very good performances in it. After the white-hot streak of greatness that preceded it, however, it couldn’t help but feel like somewhat of a letdown. From anyone else it would have been a treat. From David Fincher it felt like…an unwelcome diversion. A signalling of a potential change of track that might not be desirable in the long run.
Nevertheless, it was to be another half decade before we would see whether our anxieties were well founded or not. Looking back on it now, it seems ludicrous to have ever worried. Zodiac came out in the United States and Canada in March 2007, and a worldwide rollout then followed in May and the summer months. Box office takes were good and critical responses were very good. I remember going to see Zodiac in the cinema that year. A decade is a long time to remember anything, but I remember: 2007 was a hell of a time for going to the movies. For going to see American movies, specifically. They had a bumper year. Aside from the towering achievements of No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood we were also blessed with a rich, diverse harvest that included Into The Wild, Superbad, Eastern Promises, The Bourne Ultimatum, Gone Baby Gone, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,and—lest we fucking forget—uh oh! who’s that coming in from the outside lane to overtake them all in the dash for immortality: Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie!
Even in that almost cartoonishly crowded, Shia LaBeouf-featuring hall of excellence Zodiac managed to stand out.
It is relatively late in the movie. Newspaper cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (a great Jake Gyllenhaal) is investigating the notorious ‘Zodiac’ serial killer who terrorized Northern California in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Leads have led to nowhere, names have been floated and dismissed, and the intransigent case—by now lasting several years—has broken several hard-working, dedicated professionals. (To say that Graysmith has not been broken by it is not quite true though: When he asks someone he is questioning how they know he is involved in the Zodiac case they simply answer, ‘You have the look.’ Nevertheless, he persists.) Graysmith has been meticulously building his own case, and he has talked his way into the files storage room of a police station, desperate for some intel he knows must be there. The detective indulges him, but with some provisos: no pens. No papers. He also asks him: ‘You don’t smoke, do you?’ To which Graysmith, innocently: ‘Once. In high school.’ This juxtaposition of the naive-but-determined Graysmith—out of his element yet refusing to fold where stronger forces than him have—is simply glorious. That line, so perfectly judged, in that context, is everything that makes Zodiac great. The movie dances on the edge of a knife. It is concerned (obsessively so, this is David Fincher after all) with the methodical and the mechanical (again, David Fincher), but at the same time it breathes oh-so sympathetically along with its characters. It cares about them just as much as it cares about the particulars of the crimes and the ensuing manhunt; indeed it makes a
case that the two are inextricably bound. In this way it becomes a very humanistic film. That is not an adjective that is often used in reference to Mr. Fincher, but if any film could convince doubters otherwise it would be Zodiac.
It helps that the director arrayed such a cast for his sprawling case study. Alongside Gyllenhaal there is a pitch perfect Robert Downey Jr. as the mercurial, tragic reporter Paul Avery; Mark Ruffalo (greatest movie detective of his generation) as the dogged Inspector David Toschi; the always excellent Chloë Sevigny as Graysmith’s wife, Melanie; and a supporting cast that includes Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch, Anthony Edwards, Dermot Mulroney, and Philip Baker Hall, among many more. They allow us to live this case as the people who were there at the time lived it. That is a crucial element of being emotionally invested in this ride that could have otherwise just been an accountant’s telling. Though researched to the nth degree and told with an unparalleled eye for detail, it is the little personal touches—Toschi’s animal crackers spring to mind—and naturalistic dialogue rhythms that make sure that a human story beats at the heart of it all.
Zodiac is a long movie, but it needs to be. Roger Ebert once said that, ‘No good movie is too long, just as no bad movie is short enough.’ Zodiac sprawls, but it never sags. And just as we are pulled along every step of the way of this story by the players involved in it, so too are we kept enthralled by David Fincher’s magisterial camerawork. The director and his DP, Harris Savides, shot the movie largely on digital, but the film so often favours steady, patiently held compositions that allow its actors to move around within the frame and interact with each other, showing spatial relations in much the same way that Fincher is drawing connections between the facts of the case. And the colors? Oh lord the colors!
There is a scene in the movie even later than the one described above. Again it centers on Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith. He is still on the trail, albeit grasping at straws. He ends up visiting a stranger’s house—a contact with a potential lead on the case. It’s night time and outside it is pouring with rain. The house is creepy, and the man is creepy, and he has a dark basement. Inevitably the two must go down there together at some point. They do. Fincher structures the shots and leads us ever so slowly down into that basement with Graysmith in such a way that I can’t off the top of my head think of another scene that yanks the viewer’s very presence into the movie as much as this one. We can smell the damp wood, and hear the ominous creaks. In that scene, and in the movie as a whole, David Fincher shows that we can both objectively look at something from the outside, and be present with it right there in the visceral moment. ‘Not many people have basements in California,’ intones Graysmith fearfully.
Not many people could have made a movie like Zodiac.
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