Friday, March 09, 2007

Zodiac

Director David Fincher's achievement in bad 70s hair is nearly as masterful as his movie

David Fincher is a filmmaker who was quick to achieve cult hit status with enthralling visual and suspense masterpieces like Fight Club, Seven, and The Game, but with Zodiac, he makes a slight departure from his norm, embarking on something almost resembling a period piece. But true to his form it's a gruesome period: the terrifying reign California's Zodiac Killer from 1968 until the mid-late 70s that claimed an estimated 37 lives.

Zodiac
, based on the book of the same name by Robert Graysmith (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal) attempts to illuminate that the serial killer didn't only end the lives of his victims with knives and bullets, but through hollowing out the existences of the investigators and journalists who were obsessed with catching the murderer who taunted them with clever codes and belligerent letters.

Graysmith is a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, a former Eagle Scout, and an all-around good, smart kid who takes a keen interest in the Zodiac from the onset, but for the most part is unnoticed in an office filled with journalistic old-timers and hotshots. The most popular reporter is Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr. in yet another spectacular performance), who manages to have a talent valuable enough to the paper to allow him to get away with drinking his breakfast every morning at a local tavern. The two make an unlikely pair, but they manage to form a bond whenever the Zodiac's letters start rolling in. The narrative eventually jumps to the law enforcement side of the story, introducing us to Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner William Strong (Anthony Edwards) who are faced with the hard task of trying to coordinate their efforts with the four other precincts in which the Zodiac has claimed lives. The process is chaotic and at times sloppy, leading one to wonder what would have been accomplished had the murders occurred in a more modern era. The two sides (law enforcement and journalism) manage to at times help and hinder one another during the course of the investigation, and we can almost see the Zodiac himself pulling their strings from above.

Let's start with the obvious merits of this film, the most important of which is Fincher's claim to fame: his visual style. From the muted, almost yellowish overtones to the film itself, to the impeccable art direction featuring everything (lots and lots of polyester) that made that decade aesthetically unappetizing, Zodiac gives the impression from the onset that this isn't just a story about the 1970s, but that it was plucked directly from there. There are also the scenes involving the Zodiac's murders which are nothing short of bone-chilling. This killer was not afraid to strike in broad daylight, and it was the most frightening scene in the film. Fincher's staging of these murders was perhaps most indicative of his abilities as a visual storyteller; he manages to shock the audience without the overly-gratuitous use of blood and violence, something lost on most modern directors.

The weak points come with character development and actual story structure. It might seem hard to believe that a movie that runs over 2 and a half hours in length would be lacking in either of those things, but it's true. The characters with whom we are supposed to be sympathizing often feel cold and detached from the viewer, and we get a sense that there was supposed to be a lot more to the story that was trimmed out. As a result, certain characters feel completely out of place -- namely that of Graysmith's wife played by Chloe Sevigny. Also, there were plot threads that only seemed to serve the purpose of inserting artificial thrills, and those could have been sacrificed in order to better flesh out the main players. I anticipate the DVD release in the hopes that an uncut, full-length version would solve these problems. Despite those flaws, however, the film remains utterly fascinating.

What becomes apparent, as we witness the lives of these men (Graysmith, Toschi, Strong, and Avery) become consumed with the tracking down of this cold-blooded killer, is that the Zodiac is always at least one step ahead of them. Because of the allure of this psychopath, otherwise good people succumb to failed marriages, lost jobs, and drug addictions all in an effort to solve this mystery. Ultimately, we are left feeling as frustrated by the lack of hard answers as they must have been. If that was Fincher's mission, it was most skillfully accomplished in spite of the film's narrative issues.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A-