Monday, March 31, 2008

Zodiac (Fincher)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

I'd been eagerly anticipating Zodiac but in retrospect I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it was because Sharon Waxman had included David Fincher as one of the six young late '90s Hollywood auteurs she chose to highlight in her sleazily informative study Rebels On The Backlot, along with Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, P.T. Anderson, David O. Russell, and Spike Jonze. Back when I read that book I would have said that Fincher was probably my least favorite of the six, although I still felt that the talent on display in his first five movies did make him worthy of inclusion. Even so, since then I've bought at least one movie by the other five directors, but none of his.

Well, my Fincher movie has arrived.

Because while Tarantino was busy indulging himself in his B-movie fixation and Russell was busy making sure no one would ever want to work with him in Hollywood again, Fincher snuck up behind them all and made the film that a part of me always knew, deep down inside, he was capable of making. Maybe a non-fiction story was the trick. If so, he should try it more often.

In Rebels, Fincher professed his love for '70s cinema, and with Zodiac, he has made a perfect '70s movie. I don't just mean a movie about the '70s (although it is that too), but a movie that shares the same spirit as the movies from the '70s. It has a firm grasp of time and place. It is deadly serious and delightfully funny at the same time. Most of all it is just plain...good.

Back in January Yoggoth was making fun of one of the film critics in Slate's Movie Club for referring to Zodiac as "deeply cinematic and slyly post-so." "Oh gimme a break," he said to me over the phone. "I'm sure if it's good, it's good for all the same reasons every other good movie is good." Little did he know how right he could be. For what makes Zodiac good is the same quality that's made so many of those other movies from the '70s good: a sense of effort. Fincher simply put a shitload of effort into the movie. I remember reading about the constant release date delays and the endless post-production tinkering and the studio begging Fincher to shorten the running time and the rumors that they had a big fat dud on their hands, and after seeing the movie, I just have this to say: Could these people please just shut the hell up? Because Fincher knew exactly what he was doing. Every little second he spent tinkering with the editing in post-production is up there on the screen for you to enjoy. Every line of dialogue that he sweated over is there to enhance the viewers' enjoyment of the story. Just as Kubrick and Lean couldn't do with their best films, I don't think Fincher was able to rest until he knew that every scene was as effective as it could have possibly been. So in the end I'm glad the studio finally took a chill pill and just let him finish the damn movie. Because there's hardly a false note in the entire 160 minute running time.

The movie is worth it just for the dialogue alone. When we first meet Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), he's showing his cartoons to his editor, who serves up a withering analysis: "Horrid... horrid... not so horrid... horrid. I'm thinkin' we go with not-so-horrid." Later Graysmith approaches a character named Shorty. "Doesn't it bother you that people call you Shorty?" he asks. Shorty replies, "Doesn't it bother you that people call you retard?" Graysmith does a doubletake. "Nobody calls me that." Shorty adds, 'Right," and walks away. Graysmith then saunters over to the desk of Paul Avery (played with intoxicating abandonment by a well-cast Robert Downey, Jr.) and asks, "Does anybody ever call me names?" Avery quickly responds, "What, you mean like retard?" "Yeah." "No." The characters in Zodiac are the kind of sharp, intelligent characters I wouldn't mind meeting in real life. Except for the title character, perhaps.

Indeed, the only serious misgiving I have about the film, actually, is its rather disturbing subject matter. I did not catch Zodiac in the theater because I have to admit I was not exactly in a big hurry to watch a movie about a serial killer who roams around the Bay Area and kills random strangers and, oh yeah, they never found the guy! Just what I needed, right? I mean, there really isn't too much that you can do about serial killers. Either they kill you or they don't. Why dwell on what you can't control? That said, Zodiac has so much going for it that I would recommend it despite the troubling nature of the first couple of murder scenes (troubling precisely because they are so realistic and convincing). Let's just say there's a time and a place for Zodiac's hypnotic menace. One would have to be in the mood for some relatively dark subject matter. Maybe you're getting over a break-up. Or maybe you've just been laid off. Hey, pop in Zodiac and forget all about it!

Besides, with defenseless murder at its core, Zodiac doesn't really have to spend too much time hunting around for a hook or a gimmick (unlike some other award-season favorites I could name). I mean, it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that something genuinely critical is driving the story. Imagine All The President's Men, except instead of the integrity of our nation being at stake, it's our lives. But Zodiac is two steps ahead of us anyway, because it is not particularly interested in the blood and guts of the serial killer but rather it's interested in our interest in the blood and guts of the serial killer. Why is it that a relative statistical anomaly (random murder) strikes such a powerful chord within us? As Avery says at one point, "Do you know that more people die in the East Bay commute every three months than that idiot ever killed?" But unsolved murder mysteries sting because they poke at our very notions of a just society, and of scientific omnipotence. Robert Graysmith is like many of us in that he believes any mystery could be solved if only someone simply looked hard enough. We have all these incredible tools at our disposal, so how can it be that after all these years, and after all these clues, we can't just find the guy? What Graysmith gradually realizes, of course, is that even in our seemingly foolproof modern detective world of fingerprints and handwriting experts, sometimes the truth is simply beyond our grasp. And we have to learn to live with that.

Which is where Zodiac truly moves beyond being simply a good murder mystery and a police procedural and rather finds itself heading into startingly unique territory. The last half hour in particular, as Graysmith progressively becomes more and more thwacked out by the endless minutia of the case, is terrifically amusing and almost reassuring. When he begins receiving phone calls featuring the Zodiac's patented heavy breathing, Graysmith comes off as mostly annoyed rather than frightened. And there's a scene in a stranger's basement that's like the absurd cherry on top of Graysmith's (and our own) paranoia. At this point it's been years since the Zodiac has struck. In other words: dude, it's over. But Graysmith is still running around with a crazed gleam in his eye as if the world can't wait another second without knowing the identity of the Zodiac. Hey, life goes on. People live and die. Sure, some die at the hands of a brutal serial killer. Most don't. At some point we just have to let it go. "I need to know who he is," Graysmith states. "I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it's him." Well don't we all?

At any rate. I know I can be tough. I know I can gripe about the shortcomings of a film that most other critics are already willing to place on their "10 best of the year" list. I know I always talk smack about every heavily-hyped, highly anticipated movie that ultimately disappoints me - even just a little bit. I always complain that these movies may have a lot of good ideas or are well-intentioned but are missing that intangible whatever it is - a sense of urgency, memorable cinematography, a grasp of detail, a sureness of execution, a healthy dose of humor even. Well for once I'm going to have to shut my trap. I haven't seen every movie released in 2007, but I doubt any of them will be better than this one.

"Film critic" rating: ****
"Little Earl" rating: ****

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