by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. David Fincher, U.S., Paramount
Pauline Kael once deemed Steven Spielberg not so much a filmmaker as a toymaker. In this regard, David Fincher isnâ€™t so much a filmmaker as he is a game maker. Or game player. Indeed, the title of Fincherâ€™s third feature, The Game, could just as easily apply to each and all of his films, from Alien3â€™s gothic sci-fi labyrinth to Fight Clubâ€™s â€śwatch again how we fooled yaâ€ť anarchic pranks and now to Zodiacâ€™s surprisingly down-to-earth police procedural. Fincher's worlds are constructed out of the shifting power his playersâ€”monsters, shooters, thieves, tormentors, leaders, copsâ€”have over one another, and from this dynamic Fincher has repeatedly pondered the manipulative and obsessive nature of the cinematic apparatus. His latest follows in grueling and pedantic detail the case of the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized northern California from the late 60s to the 70s, and itâ€™s no great surprise when Fincher reveals that a prime suspect worked in a movie theater and, further, had a special fondness for the 1932 version of The Most Dangerous Game. The killer cribbed his signature/logo from movie countdown stock footage; once more Fincher draws parallels between image producing and control; but like his last effort, Panic Room, it remains to be seen how much longer audiences are willing to play along, or have Fincher play them.
Fincher must have realized Panic Room exhausted the most contrived and stylized extremes of his cat-and-mouse mindfucks, because Zodiac marks an abrupt change in the directorâ€™s sensibilities. Zodiacâ€™s subject matter still allows Fincher to indulge in puzzles, clues, and ingenious, homicidal boogeymenâ€”the laughably ponderous Se7en proved Fincher would have absolutely no interest in the troglodytic butchery of an â€śunsophisticatedâ€ť serial killer like Ted Bundyâ€”but this time a tempering of showmanship hints at possible maturation. Diminished in dramatic impact are Fincherâ€™s tendencies toward titillating violence, voluminous compositions, excruciating tension, and intricate, invasive camera work, which makes Zodiac an admirable but awkward transitional exercise, like the first â€śtastefulâ€ť illustrations of an artist best known for action painting with his own body fluids.
Zodiacâ€™s de-emphasis on the cheaply lurid is conceptually a welcome turnaround from the high-concept sensationalism of Se7en, a film that extended the unfortunate legacy of The Silence of the Lambs by reinventing it as a pointless treatise on run amok Nietzscheism. Fincher stays clear of this route in Zodiacâ€”but, bowing to convention, not at the outset. The opening shots are quite beautifulâ€”itâ€™s July 4, 1969, and fireworks blossom all over a hushed, darkened San Francisco Bay Area city. A version of Hairâ€™s â€śEasy to Be Hardâ€ť (â€śHow can people be so heartless?/How can people be so cruel?â€ť) dreamily plays over these images. Soon we follow two teenagers driving to loverâ€™s lane. With eerie foreboding and false alarms the inevitable scene wouldnâ€™t look out of place in a standard slasher pic, and if it werenâ€™t for the dark gloss of Harris Savidesâ€™s digital video photographyâ€”a cross between the under-lit hells of Gordon Willis and the otherworldly sheen of Gregory Crewdsonâ€”it would be hard to tell the difference. When the Zodiac strikes, the radio quietly piping Donovanâ€™s â€śHurdy Gurdy Manâ€ť suddenly ratchets up to full volume, the sort of obvious artistic counterpoint that occasioned the New York Timesâ€™ lazy headline summation of the film: â€śHunting a Killer as the Age of Aquarius Dies.â€ť
The connections Zodiac initially makes between the waning idealism of late 60s/early 70s youth culture and the ascent of its darker elements (also continually evoked by the other two components of the Californian Holy Trinity of Evil, Altamont and the Manson Family murders) are, however, scant and weak. Perhaps fearful of other filmmakersâ€™ recent failures to link serial killers with the cultural zeitgeist (Spike Leeâ€™s Summer of Sam, for one), Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt withdraw this line of inquiry and focus instead on the efforts made by a reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) at the San Francisco Chronicle and two SF police inspectors, David Toschi and William Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards), to track down a killer who sends warning letters to the Chronicle along with encrypted messages. Fincher loves the thrill of such identity-concealing mystery, and the best moments of the film come early on when Fincher surrogate Graysmith plays amateur sleuth, enthusiastically trying his hand at the codes whenever he can, and later bits in which he attempts to single-handedly solve the crimes after the police have given up hope after nearly a decade.
But in between thereâ€™s a long stretch of tedium, a vacuum created by the absence of the killerâ€™s viewpoint and that Toschi and Armstrongâ€™s (and, to a lesser extent, Averyâ€™s) investigations of further murders must fill. Fincher displays such respect for recreating the quotidian nature of police work that the effect is numbing, and the inspectors are such underdeveloped characters that weâ€™re made to care about nothing more than their steely, boring professionalism. The grueling routine of police work mirrors Vanderbiltâ€™s uninspired drama and dialogue: each main player receives a quirk, and every so often the action is punctuated by a dependable clichĂ© (Police captain, played by Delmot Mulroney, to Toschi after a prime suspect is frustratingly cleared: â€śTake some time off. Spend it with your wife . . .â€ť). Averyâ€™s freewheeling, boozing unscrupulous newsman gets the filmâ€™s wittiest lines (upon noticing Graysmith sipping an Aqua Velva: â€śThis can no longer be ignoredâ€ť) and, relatively, the most captivating personality, but as interpreted by Downey heâ€™s just Downey, a predictable collection of muttered sarcasms and jerky gestures, this time with Anton LaVey facial hair. As for non-victim women, theyâ€™re virtually invisible in Zodiac, and the only one of note, Graysmithâ€™s girlfriend/wife Melanie (ChloĂ« Sevigny), thanklessly fills the unsupportive nag role. Whereas Fincher has, in the past, openly attacked femininity (Fight Club) or masculinized it (Alien3, Panic Room), here he practically banishes it altogether.
But the testosterone has strangely settled to a civilized level in Zodiac. Only one mentioned theory of the off-screen Zodiacâ€™s violent reaction to sexual aggravation has anything to do with the stock Fincher male, who works through his uncontrollable or improperly channeled aggression in antisocial games on the boundaries of society. Instead, Zodiac unromantically (and uncritically) displays law enforcementâ€™s bureaucratic crime solving techniquesâ€”Vanderbilt overtly references the Zodiac Killer-influenced Dirty Harry to contrast Harryâ€™s quasi-fascism with Toschiâ€™s rulebook proprietyâ€”and keeps any potentially absorbing drama (e.g., Avery scoops a lead before Toschi and Armstrong get to it) to a minimum. This is the first time Fincher has been so preoccupied with the ostensibly realistic manner in which socially constructed games function (Se7en, The Game, and Fight Club being slick, pent up wish fulfillments), and because of this an aesthetic overcompensation (or undercompensation, as the case may be) takes effect. Even as Savidesâ€™s lens drapes every night scene in immoderate curtains of black, Fincher foregoes the effusive grime that made his name in Se7en and Fight Club, as well as the digitally enhanced, penetrating tracking shots from sterile, De Palmaâ€“esque surveillance thrillers The Game and Panic Room. It says something that the most intense scene in the film involves a clinically described Zodiac killing at an idyllic lake in broad daylight.
The dearth of cinematic bravado should be an encouraging sign for Fincher, whose worst directorial instincts often result in gimmicky excess. But just as Zodiacâ€™s period, environment (a 60s and 70s San Francisco setting has rarely provided for such a missed opportunity), and characters are superficially accounted for without being thoroughly explored, so does narrative propulsion stall without Fincherâ€™s regular bag of tricksâ€”it feels like heâ€™s spending most of the film pondering what to do without them, and every once in a while slips in an unmotivated moment of showiness (an overhead shot following a cab, time-lapse photography of a constructed building) as if sighing for relief. The film briefly comes alive when Graysmith takes center stage again in the last third of the film to try to solve the case where the policeâ€”confronted by dead ends due to contradictory evidence and the Zodiacâ€™s epistolary dormancyâ€”were left stumped, but by then itâ€™s too late. The game of hunting an elusive criminal assumes greater urgency once the hunter evinces a personal, if irrational, stake in the hunt, and if other movies attempt to make us care about a character obsessed with, say, the number 23, then Fincher earns our attention when the narrative shifts to Graysmithâ€™s mania for a game that loses its objectâ€”justiceâ€”and itself becomes the goal.
Yet Graysmith is drawn just as thinly as everybody else in Zodiac, blocking our empathy, and the real life facts of the case presumably allow only two confrontations with possible dangerous Zodiac suspects, both of which go nowhere. Itâ€™s to Fincherâ€™s credit that heâ€™s willing to tell a tale with enough minutiae and cul de sacs to consume several films, let alone one two hours and forty minutes longâ€”as opposed to his usual penchant for frenetic catharsis, for once heâ€™s dealing with irresolute and inertial material not so acclimated to multiplex consumption (although the serial killer subgenre remains a reliable crowd pleaser for penny book psychology, authoritative punishment, and lotsa gore). Zodiac suggests a new direction, but Fincher still comes across as a game maker, adrift without the calculating devices that he possesses and which possess him.