Zodiac (Fincher, 2007)

David Fincher, a director obsessed with the underbelly of American psychology, has been trying hard to make a masterpiece for years. From Se7en, to Fight Club, to Panic Room, Fincher’s films have felt incredibly self-important and self-congratulatory, languishing in layered visuals and German expressionist lighting, attempting time after time to create moods of angst and unease on a large scale. Ironically enough, he’s created his best work with his most restrained, mature, and nuanced directorial effort, the epic police procedural Zodiac. Fincher’s examination of the non-fiction accounts written by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, with which James Vanderbilt’s script is based, is both a restless and extensive, meticulous and hazy recreation of the Zodiac killings which took place in the late 1960’s and early 70’s in the San Francisco Bay Area. The ensuing investigation by the police department and the media took years, even decades, and the real identity of the killer was never confirmed (although the film has a good idea who he was). The triptych of obsessed characters at the heart of Zodiac are Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and SFPD Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), each delving into the Zodiac case with the same gusto, but without any seemingly easy explanation why. At one point in the film, Brian Cox’s lawyer Melvin Belli states that “killing is the Zodiac’s compulsion”, and Fincher infects his protagonists with an equal amount of compulsion toward solving the case. Avery’s drinking gets worse as his personal investigation grows more out of hand. Toschi’s relationship with his partner and family, as well as his public image, all become tainted. Graysmith, the focus of the film’s final third, gets so wrapped up in the minutia of the case he loses his family and doesn’t appear to bat an eye. Fincher’s attention to detail, specifically his beautifully full mise-en-scene of San Francisco, represent his character’s consumption of the Zodiac details, down to the smallest shred of evidence, circumstantial or hard. Zodiac is told in terms of a timeline, constantly flashing forward days, months, years, accounting for the major events and shifts concerning the characters involved. In dong this, Fincher has created a lush, choppy historiography at it’s finest, a fluctuating and shifty re-telling of a crucial social and psychological phenomenon. Zodiac is equally focused on the public fear these killings caused, but also the need for closure by the community at large represented in close proximity by Graysmith, Avery, and Toschi. And Zodiac never gives in, partly since the case was never solved in real life, but mostly because Fincher’s point is to highlight the complexities of the events being discussed. The horror of the first half hour slowly reverberates into long discussions by key figures, stabs at the truth, leading to full blown obsessions with the in’s and outs of the case. No gratuitous or purposefully horrific images unfold, just the doubt which comes with not knowing why. It’s been hours after my screening and Zodiac has already gotten better. It’s as if the film has seeped into my own subconsciousness, begging for more attention, calling into question the facts, and pressing for closure. But that will never happen, because no matter how many times I come across Zodiac, it will always be about the process of compulsion, and whether it be the killing or investigating or watching, it’s a work that will get more fascinating as it’s fallacies grow into the darkness.

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