The Films of David Fincher – Zodiac (Film review)
Zodiac is, without doubt David Fincher’s masterpiece and unbeknownst to everyone at the time, it will become the benchmark for all future Fincher films. It is the perfectly realised balance of a fine script, brilliant performances, technical acumen and above all an implacable restraint that is made all the more potent for the films one hundred and sixty-two minute length. All the problems with Se7en (still a great film) are obliterated in Zodiac, a far more difficult film to “enjoy” mostly because of the enormous cerebral pressure it places on the thinking viewer. The themes here are large: American obsession with serial killers, media interference in police procedure, pulp fictions obsession with true crime, the attention to detail of the obsessive, the reflexive nature of societies imaginations, the costs of obsession, the effects of time and memory on history, etc. If Fincher refused to turn the camera on his audience in Se7en, he does so with a cool calculated gaze in Zodiac, a film that rarely wavers into Fincher’s characteristic flounces, such as helicopter shots or ambient police torch-light. Much of Fincher’s integrity comes from a clear intention to tell the truth of the story, possibly because it is the first “true story” film Fincher will make, and his intention to avoid glamorizing the serial killer as he did in Se7en. By keeping so close to the facts of the story, by retaining a self consciousness about the end product, the meticulous perfectionism that characterises Fincher’s directing style becomes the perfect vehicle for a long drawn out film about obsession on details.
Zodiac’s opening scene is a fine example of the films merits. With Three Dog Night’s lilting cover of ‘Easy To Be Hard’ wafting, the scene is of Vallejo, California on the fourth of July, fireworks bursting over the city. Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes) is on her way to pick up Mike Mageau (Lee Norris), but the camera examines the houses celebrating fourth of July from her eye as she drives. When she drives Mike to a secluded lovers lane, another car approaches and although Mike wants to leave, Darlene claims everything is alright and doesn’t make a move to drive away. Donovan’s haunting ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ comes over the radio and increases as The Zodiac steps out of his car and shoots the pair. It’s the scene that will become the defining murder leading to a suspect by Robert Greysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the cartoonist at The San Francisco Chronicle who becomes obsessed with solving The Zodiac’s puzzles and then the murder itself. Opening the film with the murder that causes the films denouement is not only clever writing, it also speaks to the fascination of the Zodiac obsessives. Fincher makes a film that the obsessives will love, even as he casts a shadow over the costs of that obsession. Greysmith, the writer of the two books the film is based on, is an obsessive, and James Vanderbuilt’s decision to base the story on the fanboy who writes the books rather than the story of the killer is all the more powerful because it includes the detectives working the case as complicit in that obsession. If Greysmith becomes preocupied because he loves puzzles and can’t prevent himself from falling down the rabbit hole, then even more chilling is the fate of detective Dave Toshci (a soft-spoken Mark Ruffalo) who becomes haunted by association. Both men are reflected in characters who represent an alternate choice, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Junior) who sinks into depression and substance abuse against Greysmiths vigilance, and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) who voluntarily gives up detective work altogether because of the impact on his family against Toshci’s being demoted and barred from the case for sending his own Zodiac letters. All four men will be ruined by their obsession with Armstrong as the only one who escapes. Fincher inserts wonderfully understated images to reflect this obsession, such as Greysmith, alone in his apartment filled with files about the Zodiac case after his family have left him, flicking through his newspaper clippings chillingly preserved in a family photo album.
As if all this isn’t enough, Fincher includes statements about film, media and societies unhealthy fascination with serial killers, using The Zodiac’s own passion for publication in the press as the launchpad for observation. Film posters referencing serial killers appear all the time, not to mention a scene when the four protagonists are together at an opening night of Dirty Harry, a film that sources the Zodiac murders. At another point Toshci is referred to as “Bullit” after the Steve MacQueen character. The offices of the San Francisco Chronicle reference Pakulas All the Presidents Men, and work around a distinguishing colour, such as the yellow motif in the opening credits. Much of the film had to be shot before a blue screen with backdrops superimposed due to changes in the city skyline or neighbourhoods not wanting murders recreated in the area that had almost forgotten them, while the soundtrack contains music from the era represented and sounds and music from All the Presidents Men and the Coppola film The Conversation. Zodiac is the film where Fincher first gets his reputation for needing seventy takes on a set, and being so fastidiously precise that he gains support from the real life Toschi as well support from Vallejo police who hope the film will spark interest from the public. The film works within the obsession, becomes the obsession if you like, making itself another media representation of what it is seeking to expose. The Zodiac killer played with the media, using it to enhance his notoriety. From the badges Paul Avery has made that everyone wears that say “I’m not Paul Avery” through the comment William Armstrong makes to David Toshci when Avery supposedly discovers the Zodiac’s first victim, “It’s very real. You know how I know? I saw it on TV,” to the incredible collection images used in the montage of media lettering and zodiac puzzles sliding and moving over the top of the detectives trying to do their job. This obsession with representation through the lens makes the Zodiac a different serial killer, a modern serial killer, and this becomes Fincher’s second film that points to a problematic relationship with the camera. The Zodiac is never caught, which is interesting seeing as he calls famous people regularly, sent letters to the press, and forged personal relationships with the people obsessed with catching him. In Panic Room, David Fincher told us video surveillance becomes a self-cogitating nightmare, the lens always pointed back at us. In Zodiac he uses the media and film in the same way, revealing a relationship with technology that uses us more than we make a use of it.
It’s easy to talk about Zodiac all day, but I wanted to make one additional mention of the incredible performances, which Fincher has claimed, came “from the fifty-fourth take.” It is a film that uses detail almost like a character, but this extends to the performances, with everyone at the top of their game, making this Fincher film the best in his collection.