Zodiac

zodiac.jpg
Merrick Morton/Warner Bros. Ent.-Paramount Pictures
David Fincher/United States 2007

Ed: Cinemattraction’s critics came away from Zodiac with very different opinions of the film’s quality. So here we present both views and let you decide for yourself.

First, from Brandon Fibbs:

Strike two for David Fincher.

Seven was a phenomenal and twisted noir thriller. The Game was a delicious and stylish liturgy of paranoia and misdirection. And Fight Club was one of the seminal films of the 1990s – a post-modern masterpiece. But something happened after those three gems. Panic Room didn’t suck, to be certain, but it was hardly a great film. And now we’re given Zodiac, marketed as a thriller though it has far more in common with All the President’s Men than Silence of the Lambs but with only a smidgen of the former’s tension and suspense.

I came to Zodiac with high hopes. After all, this was familiar territory for Fincher: grisly murders, a serial killer, police procedurals, obsessive cops. From the first few moments of the opening credits with the studio logos circa 1970, you can almost taste Fincher back at the helm. His distinctive style – wide, fluid tracking shots, characters wreathed in shadow, incessant rainfall – was in abundant supply.

The film starts with a bang. After randomly assassinating several young couples, a killer calling himself “The Zodiac” begins taunting the police by sending ciphered letters to the newspaper. Try as they might, the police can’t seem to get traction on the case. An intrepid and dogged reporter refuses to let it go, fighting government bureaucracy, office politics, familial disapproval, his own fear and the march of years to unravel the mystery one piece at a time. Zodiac showcases three terrific and hugely entertaining leads in Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. to say nothing of a slew of mesmerizing supporting players.

The problems with the film begin when the Zodiac killer ceases his crimes, somewhere around the halfway point. Though the characters continue in their obsessive quest for the truth, as the nearly three-hour film unfolds, the audience is not brought along for the ride. Zodiac cannot possible sustain its tension once the antagonist – and hence the conflict – vanishes. Zodiac is not about a murderer, but about a man obsessed with catching him. Though the film wants you to identify with the protagonist’s fixation, it becomes nearly impossible. Add to this fact that despite all this effort, there will ultimately be no resolution and it is not hard to pinpoint why Zodiac never gets off the ground. This film is an exercise in the absence of dramatics.

That the killer is never caught shouldn’t be a spoiler, though some people may not be aware of the well-publicized, based-on-a-true-story account. That a film plays with audience expectations and intentionally does not deliver on the supposed promise of its genre is to be praised. It is not the lack of resolution that makes Zodiac a poor film; it is its stupefyingly dull progression.

Zodiac covers nearly two decades (though none of the primary characters seem to age), often jumping forward months and even years in a few minutes. We watch San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid transform itself from a huge hole in the ground in the beginning minutes to a monolithic sentinel by the film’s end. Each transition is heralded by a title card announcing the time and place. They occur so often that one almost ceases paying attention to them. Obviously, Zodiac looked good on paper, but when fleshed out on the screen, it becomes just one more uninspired whodunit. The film opens by announcing it is based on actual case files. And if you want to know how exciting it was to read each and every one of them verbatim, watch this film.

And now a second opinion from Lydia Storie:

Admittedly, at a grueling three hours, Zodiac is not an easy film to sit through – especially as we are fully aware that the results of the on-screen investigation of the infamous California serial killer will remain as inconclusive as the case itself. But what Fincher does offer with this film is an intriguing experiment in the treatment of a real-life mystery. As Fincher suggests, the most frightening thing about the mystery of the Zodiac killer may not actually be the relatively few, if gruesome, murders he (claimed to have) committed – as Ruffalo’s Inspector David Toschi points out, hundreds of non-Zodiac murders occurred in San Francisco in the three years after the serial killer materialized and was around for a measly few months. Rather, more terrifying than the existence of a mass-murderer was the obsessiveness that manifested in his various pursuers.

One might say that Fincher’s penchant for psychologically-intense films remains vastly underappreciated among fans – after all, even the grisly crime-thriller Seven essentially hinged on the exploration of the human psyche through the guise of a sin-inspired series of murders. And The Game, along with the subsequent mind-centered thriller Fight Club, places the psychological directly on its surface. The point is, Fincher is not, as many critics of his newest film maintain, a director of violence and gore – we have Martin Scorsese for that. So, contrary to what the misleading trailers for Zodiac suggest, this film is about obsession – obsession with violence, perhaps, but certainly with the impossible pursuit of heroism. Here, Fincher shows us a compulsion that drives, not just one, but several men to the brink of self-destruction.

This is why Zodiac seems disjointed by conventional narrative standards – the story’s main character is not any one of the three men played by Ruffalo, Gyllenhaal, or Downey. Instead, it is the unseen yet palpable specter of obsession that alternatively inhabits each of them over the course of the murder case’s progression. More than that, Fincher shrewdly toys with viewer psychology, exposing filmic conventions only to demolish them, building suspense in the face of knowledge that invalidates any rational justification for it. We can plainly see from Fincher’s treatment that the killer is not any of the men the three “heroes” pursue, yet we share in Robert Graysmith’s (Gyllenhaal) fear of the eerie movie projectionist who lures him into a basement as well as in his fleeting suspicion that the killer may in fact be his good friend Paul Avery (Downey).

To say that Zodiac is an enjoyable film would be as deliberately misleading as Fincher’s narrative; but then again, how pleasant was the experience of watching Seven? While his earlier works may offer more tightly woven, more satisfying narratives, Zodiac at the very least does justice to the sinuous phenomenon it portrays – not the killing spree itself, but the peculiar pattern of heroic obsession that ensued.

© 2007 Brandon Fibbs & Lydia Storie. All rights reserved.

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