Thursday, July 1, 2010
Deciphering the Zodiac
Amongst film circles, the year 2007 was known for 2 films that garnered major critical attention: No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Both films are strong entries into their resective director's catalogs. But in early March of that year, another film came out that should be held in the same regard as those two. Zodiac, the 5th film by David Fincher centered around the case of the Zodiac killer. Taking place in the 70's and in the San Fransisco Now before the film even coming out, I admit, I was a bit disapointed Fincher was going to be treading the same ground here. Se7en is already one of the most effective films of its genre so why would her try to recapture what he had created in 1995? When I walked out of the theater after seeing Zodiac, I realized I couldn't be any further from the truth.
Movies are all about structure. You have three acts to fufill certain desires and expectations. That's what I love about them. Then every now and then you run across a film like Zodiac that's not interested in doing what already has been done or give you that immediate satisfaction. Because in reality, the detectives that were on the case weren't getting that either. It stays true to the beats of the case and offers up the compelling procedural aspect of it. Now the film thats always gonna be mentioned alongside it in that regard is All the President's Men. A film that goes to many lengths to get as many details and facts right. You can see Redford & director Alan Pakula were just as aware as Fincher is in not straying from the factual aspects of the case it was portraying. And it's a valid comparison because Fincher even brought back composer David Shire, the one who scored All the President's Men to score this film.
The acting is stellar throughout the film. From Jake Gyllenhaal to Robert Downey Jr. to Adam Goldberg who comes in for three scenes. Everyone is absorbed in their characters and their purpose. The ensemble is really impressive.
Another thing critics and people talked about was the pacing. It is different from your average 3 act structure. The first hour and a half takes place at the height of all the murders. There are several scene throughout that evoke tension and suspense like few films have in the past decade. Who can listen to Hurdy Gurdy Man the same way again after seeing that opening? The murders are cold and brutal and just as effective as anything we have seen in Se7en.
The second half is structured along the lines of a procedural with detectives and one of the biggest aspects of the film comes into play: detail. Most films and filmmakers take a historical subject and pair it down to its core elements. While that's all fine, I still feel like something is missing after having seen it. Zodiac presents its subject matter in as honest detail possible. Compiling massive amounts of information and honing it down to a 2 and a half hour film that is riveting from beginning to end. In essence, this is not a film about a serial killer so much as a film about obssessiveness. It's about a newspaper cartoonist named Robert Graysmith who would not let the case go.
From a stylistic standpoint, this is Fincher at his most restrained. Which is interesting, because when looking at a number of negative reviews on the film, this is what they seemed to have a problem with. When Fight Club and Se7en came out they became major influences in filmmaking and how people were lighting their films. Fincher knows this and what makes him a great filmmaker is the interest in moving away from what's done before. Zodiac's asethetic is more along the lines of The Game, where Fincher got out of the way and was telling a story. You feel like you're on the case the whole time. It was almost shot in the same way films of the 70's with an exception to the use of CGI and visual flourishes. In a day and age where CGI is exploited in every possible way, the most impressive uses of it are when you don't even realize it. One great example is the passing of time with the TransAmerica tower being built. This is CGI when it looks absolutely real.
Zodiac is an important chapter in the career of David Fincher and shows him on his A game. This is not a three layer cake. This is a three thousand layer cake. Making a complicated process look simple and a film you will get completely lost. Usually on first watch you are enjoying the technique but in Zodiac's case, it's going to take at least 3 or 4 viewings to really look at the details and flourishes which service this story.