Thursday, March 01, 2007

Zodiac

Zodiac belongs in the genre known as the "police procedural," but few films take that title so literally. David Fincher's atmospheric, lengthy and complex new film looks at the infamous Zodiac Killer murders from every conceivable angle, examining every last shred of evidence. Just as the trio of protagonists - a reporter, a cartoonist and a cop - grow increasingly obsessed with the case, Fincher's film too lingers on every crime scene photo, visits and revisits every key witness, scrutinzes every connection for some minor, overlooked nuance that might shed some light on this bizarre tangle of events.

The film can be an exhausting experience. For 150 minutes, Fincher piles on the facts, figures and details of the case, rarely coming up for air. It's a rare cop film, or any film for that matter, that's so willing to abandon all structure and storytelling conventions in the service of accurately following an investigation. James Vanderbilt's screenplay is absolutely relentless, and even brave in a way. It counts on an audience to remain actively engaged with an unsolvable mystery for nearly three hours, without ever pandering or breaking the tension. Watching Zodiac is like reading the SFPD police file on the Zodiac case - informative, grim and fascinating.

That's not to say it's dry. In fact, the film's quite funny, with some terrific dialogue and a slew of memorable, lived-in performances. And as I pointed out, this is not a film with a lot of down time. It's captivating, particularly for a film of its length, fast-forwarding through a decade's worth of strange events as succinctly as possible.

I'm just saying, horror and suspense fans looking for Seven Part 2, or anything else looking for a fun movie for a Saturday night, consider yourself warned. This film's closer to Oliver Stone's JFK than Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs.


Why the fascination with catching Zodiac? Reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) notes at one point that more local citizens will lose their life commuting to work that month than were ever killed by the mysterious man in a mask. SFPD Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) muses that 200 San Franciscans have been murdered during the time he's spent seeking out the Zodiac Killer. And yet both of these men devote years of their lives to the case.

If pressed, they'd probably give some stock response. It's their job to find the killer. He needs to be stopped before kills again. The only one who's even remotely honest with himself is cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who hovers around Avery's desk all day absorbing clues and information. Graysmith likes puzzles and begins working out the complicated, coded messages the killer sends to the newspaper after every murder.

For him, what begins as an intellectual exercise - am I more clever than a serial killer? - soon becomes a fixation. Under the guise of writing a book about the case, Graysmith completely loses himself in the piles of forensic evidence, the tiniest details, of all the individual crimes. The positions in which the bodies were found. The pattern of phone calls made the day of the first murder. The handwriting on a promotional poster for a film screening. (In one of the film's many creative passing-of-time montages, Fincher superimposes Zodiac's scrawlings and Graysmith's handwritten notes over the newsroom walls, filling every last corner of space around him with facts, figures and data.)

Graysmith admits to his beleaguered wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny) that his passion for the Zodiac is borne of his own vanity. A lowly cartoonist in an office full of massive egos who can't wait to remind him how little he matters, Graysmith at first sees the murders as a way to prove his own worth. He needs to conquer this man, who has made such a display of boastful superiority. The Zodiac states repeatedly that he is smarter and more capable than the police and the reporters and anyone else who could try to catch him (and what are random, motiveless murders but repeated demonstrations of ones mastery over others)?

Some of the most disturbing of his letters to the San Francisco Chronicle detail his warped personal mythology, in which his victims become his slaves in the afterlife, giving him not one but two opportunities to rule over their fate. Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides occasionally shoot the film from what could be considered the delusional Zodiac's point of view, looking down upon the city of San Francisco from an omniscient birds-eye view. (At one point, the camera looks down from an impossible angle on the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. In another sequence, we watch the TransAmerica Pyramid being built in sped-up motion.)

So it's only natural, in a way, that others would respond to this grandiose show of dominance with equal fervor and determination. And perhaps what Vanderbilt and Fincher do best in the film is reflect just how hopeless and soul-sucking an enterprise chasing the Zodiac Killer really was. The film eventually zeroes in on one or two likely suspects, but neither of them seem quite capable of the elaborate scope and craftiness of these crimes. The Zodiac manages to commit several murders, phone the homes of witnesses and journalists, appear by voice on a TV chat show and repeatedly taunt several high-ranking SFPD detectives, all without ever coming close to being caught.

Worse yet, every piece of evidence that comes along in the multiple decades of the investigation seems to contradict all the other evidence. Avery suggests on multiple occasions that the real Zodiac Killer may be taking credit for crimes he did not commit. Was he really the sicko who threatened a mother and her baby on the road near Modesto?

These kinds of uncertainties come to haunt all three men, bringing each of them to a state of mental collapse. All three performers do solid work in the film's final stretch, but Mark Ruffalo in particular stands out. His Toschi, verbally and physically, is utterly unlike any other character the man has ever played. And though Gyllenhaal does a nice job of capturing Graysmith's manic, paranoid intensity in pursuing 10-year old leads, and Downey Jr. has a stark, knowing grace playing a fading alcoholic cokehead, this felt like Ruffalo's movie all the way. He's absolutely heartbreaking when he rejects all of Graysmith's new evidence. He wants to get reinvigorated and finally solve this thing, but knows deep down that the case will never be closed. It has, at this point, already destroyed his career and possibly his life.

Aside from these three strong central performances, Fincher has filled every minute of screen time with great character actors and familiar faces. (I wasn't kidding with those JFK comparisons). The underappreciated Elias Koteas does a nice, subtle job as a canny small town sheriff. Brian Cox is hilarious as the infamous Hollywood lawyer (and Jack Ruby's attorney) Melvin Belli, to whom the Zodiac reaches out in a time of need. Phillip Baker Hall has a few great scenes and a questionable fingerprint expert.

As potential subject Arthur Leigh Allen, John Carroll Lynch gives perhaps the film's best, and certainly most unsettling, performance. Allen's so creepy, Toschi wants to arrest him on the spot, but of course there's no crime against generally being an oddball. I recognized Lynch from his relatively small role as Norm Gunderson in the Coen Brothers' Fargo, but there's absolutely nothing folksy or sweet about Allen. His interrogation is one of the film's most startling, well-written scenes.

Rewatching Silence of the Lambs about a year ago, I noticed its corniness for the first time. The movie scared me shitless when I first saw it years ago, and I have always thought of it as an effective, chilling horror film. Rewatching it, I still admired the Jodie Foster performance and the subtle ways that Demme constantly notes the thinly-veiled sexual harrassment to which all female law enforcement officers become accustomed. But I found the Hopkins performance silly and not particularly frightening, and his increasingly gory antics ludicrous in the extreme. (The human face-mask scene didn't work for me at all. It looks incredibly fake.)

Demme's film takes the business of catching serial murderers and turns it into a cartoon for our entertainment, inspiring an entire generation of mundane TV series and cheap B-grade knockoffs. (Suspect Zero, I'm looking in your direction...) It works alright as a fantasy.

But that's not what Fincher has done here. He already played that game once with Seven, a film I enjoy for its style and performances but don't feel strongly about.

Instead, Zodiac looks at police work clinically, pausing occasionally to note the personality types drawn to this practice and the ensuing fallout on their private lives. In the first third, we see how criminals are generally caught. In the second third, we see why these methods don't work on the Zodiac, and finally, we see how resiliance and pluck and creativity may be able to overcome even his considerable preparation and unique genius. It's a turbulent but ultimately rewarding ride, and one hell of an entertaining film. Probably Fincher's best work yet, and certainly his smartest.

4 comments:

Peter L. Winkler said...

Melvin Belli wasn't a "Hollywood attorney," despite his appearance in a single episode of Star Trek. Belli resided in San Francisco and practiced law from there.

Lons said...

Well, perhaps he lived in San Francisco, but I took this right off Wikipedia:

He had many celebrity clients, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, Errol Flynn, Chuck Berry, Muhammad Ali, Sirhan Sirhan, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Martha Mitchell, Lana Turner, Tony Curtis, and Mae West.

Anyone who represents Errol Flynn AND Tony Curtis counts as a Hollywood attorney in my book.

Tim said...

Glad to hear Jamie Vanderbilt did a good job with this one. I went to high school with the guy and have been a bit dismayed following his career so far (Darkness Falls, Basic). It's bizarre that he's hooked up now with Fincher.

Lons said...

Wow, that's cool. It's a GREAT script. Interesting...Usually, I would have clicked his name on IMDb to check out his other credits, but I didn't when writing this review. Had no idea he'd been credited on such awful films previously.

Anyway, yes, props to your graduating class.