Thursday, August 09, 2007

 

Crossing a line into obsession

By Edward Copeland
My virtual relationship with David Fincher has been an odd one. I didn't care much for Alien3 or Seven. I thought The Game was a mixed bag as well. Then came Fight Club, and he won me over to the point that I seem to forget that it was the first film of his I liked. (Something that stayed in place even after having a mixed reaction to Panic Room.)

Now, I've finally caught up with Zodiac and I can proudly say that Fincher has made two films I think are great. In fact, for me, Zodiac seems to be his penance for making Seven.


There's no romanticizing of the serial killer in Zodiac, helped a great deal by the fact that he was real and his identity remains a mystery to this day. There aren't any extended setups for clever kills that are only an excuse for the final climax, as in Seven, where most people had to know what was coming.

Zodiac is a nearly emotion-free procedural, covering the series of California slayings from the points of view of journalists and police without the requisite pumping up of emotion. It's a film of observance more than investigation.

Now, Zodiac isn't as strong as Fight Club, but the fault of that I think lies mainly with some of his casting decisions and the way some actors chose to play their roles, especially in the case of Jake Gyllenhaal who I've yet to find a particularly interesting actor and who clearly is someone who should not be cast in roles where he is supposed to age more than a decade over the course of the film.

They made the same mistake with him and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, though since Ledger's a stronger actor, he got away with it a little easier. Asking Gyllenhaal to age substantially in a role is like considering Keanu Reeves for a period piece: For God's sake, don't do it. Mark Ruffalo, an actor I usually like, seems too soft-spoken in his role as one of the lead detectives on the slayings.

Still, Zodiac works in spite of these portrayals. A lot of that credit goes to Fincher, who approaches the screenplay by James Vanderbilt in almost clinical way. Zodiac plays like many of the police procedurals that seem to dominate television these days, except you know that there won't be a neat resolution since the real-life Zodiac murders were never solved.

Fincher, along with cinematographer Harris Savides and production designer Donald Graham Burt capture the time period of the 1960s and 1970s perfectly, avoiding any touches that might play like camp. At times, the San Francisco newsroom looks as if it could have been lifted straight from All the President's Men.

However, the performance that almost makes the entire film, even though it's the briefest of the three "leads," is Robert Downey Jr. as the lead police reporter, determined to make a name for himself off the Zodiac killings. That is, if he can put down his drink long enough. Downey is great and I almost wish there had been more of him.

There also is a nice turn by Brian Cox playing famed lawyer Melvin Belli, who got involved in the case as well and also sought to feed off the notoriety.

Still, what makes Zodiac work so well is that it's an exercise in mood and style. Often, those types of films fall flat for me, but Fincher keeps such strong control of his material that I never got bored despite its running time of more than two-and-a-half hours.

Some may be disappointed by the ending, but this is a story that had no end, so the film couldn't manufacture one. In a way, it's similar to the finale of The Sopranos, only this ending didn't take time to grow on me because I knew that this real-life story couldn't have a resolution and still be true.


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Comments:
i'm glad you liked this film! I thought it was a fantastic fincher film.

totally with you on jake's aging...he's not the right guy for that...for the role of the cartoonist in the 60s i bought it, but then he had kids? YEARS & YEARS passed. Strange casting as that goes.
 
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