Monday, March 05, 2007

Zodiac

by Jackrabbit Slim
*VERY SLIGHT SPOILERS*

First, so you know where I'm coming from, I thought Seven was okay, and I did not like Fight Club. That way you can understand that I am not one of those fan-boy legions who seem to worship David Fincher. I think he has an interesting visual style but I don't find him to be an amazing auteur. That being said, I thought Zodiac was a good film, his best so far, and this even when he has a story that is too messy to conform to classic film structure.

The story concerns the investigation into five killings in the San Francisco area in the late sixties. The killer, clearly someone who wanted attention, wrote letters to the area newspapers, including cyphers. A political cartoonist becomes obsessed with the killings and keeps working on the case, long after the police and the public have lost interest.

This film is full of details and red herrings that give it a two-hour and forty-five minute length. That's a little too long, given that there are two lengthy scenes that one thinks involve Zodiac but turn out not to. Fincher seems to have the same obsession for detail that Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist who stuck with the case and wrote two books about it, did.

Some critics have come down hard on this film for the messy structure. This is always a conundrum. Do you stick to the truth, and have the audience walk out without a sense of closure, or do you tidy things up and rewrite history? One solution is not to make a film about a case that has no definitive solution, but then we wouldn't have all those Jack the Ripper films. I'm fine with what Fincher has done here.

The film is basically in three parts. In the first third, three killings are shown, including one that will forever change your reaction to Donovan's "Hurdy-Gurdy Man," and another that is a very creepy attack on a couple of college kids. Letters to the papers are sent, and a crime reporter, Robert Downey, Jr. gets involved, as well as the paper's boyish cartoonist, Jake Gyllenhaal, who has no official role but eventually worms his way into it.

The second third of the film involves the police investigation, and I found this to be the best section. It's classic police procedural, like a Law and Order episode on steroids. The detectives, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, like a guy name Arthur Leigh Allen, but can't get the smoking gun that would lock him up. The intensity of the investigation nearly drives Ruffalo over the brink, and Edwards eventually has to transfer out of homicide. When the killings and letters stop, Ruffalo has to let it go.

The last third of the film brings back Gyllenhaal. He hasn't stopped, and wants to write a book about the killings, and attempts to bring a reluctant Downey and Ruffalo back in. There are few more red herrings, particularly a visit to a film theater owner, but eventually Gyllenhaal thinks he has the answer. Meanwhile, his marriage to Chloe Sevigny suffers.

The acting is interesting in this film, as it involves many different styles. Gyllenhaal is perfect as the Eagle Scout cartoonist, and Ruffalo simmers as the hard-boiled cop. Downey, who is always an interesting actor, may have given his character too many quirks. Each line he says seems to have come from a different part of his brain. Sevigny, stuck in a thankless part, does manage to give the character some life.

Judging by the box office numbers, when a movie like Wild Hogs can out perform Zodiac three-to-one in ticket sales, it may be a bad sign that the public just doesn't want to sit in a theater for three hours watching a film about a serial killer that doesn't have the killer getting justice. That's a shame, because I'm sure that five minutes of this film is far more interesting than John Travolta getting hit in the face with a bird.

2 Comments:

Blogger Nick said...

As a legitimate Fincher fan-butt-boy all I can say is I can't wait. Until whenever they release it in Sweden (or Denmark, because then I'll just take the train over).

3/05/2007 01:08:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Finally caught up to this last night, and I'm afraid I just didn't get it. I didn't have a problem with the structure of it exactly, but I was wondering throughout what was so interesting about the story I was seeing. A guy killed a few people, and the cops couldn't find him. Big deal!

And for all the run time, I actually thought that the characters were surprisingly shallow. One minute, the Anthony Edwards character is just doing his job, the next he's too burned out to continue. When did that happen? I didn't get a sense of the strain he and Toschi were under at all. Avery is dropped halfway through, save for a very awkward scene where Graysmith visits him late in the film. Graysmith spends a few late nights out towards the end of the movie, and I guess we were supposed to take from that that he was obsessed, but I didn't see it. His activities seemed like more or less normal book research to me.

I was glad that Fincher didn't Fincherize everything, though. And I thought there were good moments at times, particularly Allen's initial questioning. But on the whole, I just didn't see why this movie stands out from all the dozens of "OK but not great" movies that come out every year.

3/26/2007 02:40:00 PM  

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