The new film from the director of Seven
BY JASON BLAIR
ZODIAC: Directed by David Fincher. Written by James Vanderbilt, based upon the book by Robert Graysmith. Cinematography, Harris Sevides. Music, David Shire. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Chloë Sevigny, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney and Donal Logue. Paramount Pictures, 2007. R. 158 minutes.
Two years after Leonardo DiCaprio proclaimed himself king of the world, David Fincher actually occupied the throne. No, Fincher wasn't Brad Pitt or Gwyneth Paltrow — who met, as it happens, on the set of Fincher's Seven — but among Hollywood directors in 1999, David Fincher was a star. Seven, a grisly but unforgettable crime drama, was a surprisingly intelligent film, propelling Kevin Spacey into Tom Hanks-like ubiquity and revealing Morgan Freeman at his weary best. As good as Seven was, however, it was Fight Club that mobilized the Fincher fraternity. Deranged and nihilistic but wholly original, Fight Club portrayed males as so culturally malnourished that organized fights become acts of healing. Fincher was immediately labeled a genius, which is like getting a college degree or malaria: Once it's yours, it's with you forever.
|Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) gives Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) his two cents in Zodiac|
Although Fincher attended high school in Ashland, he grew up in Marin County during the Zodiac years. That proximity might give Fincher an advantage — or at least some inspiration — when recreating the milieu of San Francisco in the late 1960s. (What it doesn't give Fincher is psychological insight into the Zodiac or the men who pursued him. That he has to earn.) Fincher knows art direction more than his contemporaries: He worked at Industrial Light and Magic, so "period" means more to him than sideburns and polyester. Even his first feature, Alien3, had a bold, cohesive look. But while the period look and feel of Zodiac can be mesmerizing at times, the overall film resembles an episode of Law and Order. Only Zodiac is three times longer.
To be fair, the story of the Zodiac killer almost resists coherent storytelling. No suspect was ever arrested, so Fincher's job is to bring some resolution to the story of the man most associated with the case, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). But therein lies a problem: This is not Graysmith's story. The film belongs to David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the inspector originally assigned to the case. The real-life Toschi was the model for Steve McQueen in Bullitt, so Toschi clearly has the most to lose. Except this is also the story of Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the alcoholic reporter who covered the murders in print. Graysmith, a former cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle, finally takes over the case when everyone else gives up (or gets reassigned). So it should be a little-guy-makes-good story, but how can it be when Gyllenhaal disappears for long stretches?
In order to encompass three decades of police work, Fincher relies on a structure that's both linear and highly episodic. The result is a rigid and procedural film. Each scene begins with a notation — eight hours later, four months later, two years later, etc. — giving Zodiac a bumpy, lurching rhythm with dozens of bruising time-cuts. Zodiac has no natural center: I felt whiplashed just trying to get a handle on something, some person or idea containing a clear expression of a theme. There are many career-fortifying performances in Zodiac, including Anthony Edwards (from ER) as an inspector and Dermot Mulroney as his boss. But Zodiac has too many stories to tell.
It's still a David Fincher film, which ought to count for something. But after Panic Room and now Zodiac, one wonders how long we'll be able to say that.