Wednesday, April 23, 2008
(Image from IMP Awards)
Man, I'm way behind on these.
David Fincher's 'Zodiac', his first film since the fairly good but not great 'Panic Room', is a terrific procedural crime drama. He's best known for 'Fight Club' (a film I need to see again), but this is much closer to his serial killer film 'Seven'. It's based on the true story of the Zodiac Killer who terrorized San Francisco during the 1960s, and is a meticulously detailed and apparently quite comprehensive recreation of the investigation into the killings. The film focuses on three men - Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper who is drawn to the case by the Killer's cryptic puzzles, Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) who works the case, and SF Chronicle writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), who writes about the killer. Spanning several decades, the film chronicles every significant detail relating to the investigation of the Zodiac Killer and the major players involved in the investigation.
It's a procedural, but one that is devoid of the usual Hollywood gloss that we have come to expect from the genre. I would say that it is toned down even compared to Fincher's own 'Seven', which is an excellent film that is already a decent example of restraint. 'Zodiac' is completely matter of fact and realistic, showing the investigation as something that takes time, tedious amounts of research and legwork, numerous dead ends, paperwork, communication with various - and occasionally uncooperative - parties, and working within legislature and bureaucracy. And often, lots of waiting around for something to happen. There are no convenient epiphanies that lead to exciting chases or shootouts. Despite all of the effort that went into hunting the killer, the case was never and probably never will be solved, even though those involved believed they had their man.
The attention to realism may sound boring - I'm fairly certain some people feel that way - what with there only being a handful of scenes showing the killer in action (face never revealed) and lots of scenes of interviews, meetings, and people throwing ideas around, but I found it to be utterly fascinating and a refreshing change. Having said that, it's not just the crime procedural aspects that make this compelling. The film also tells the story of how these three men become completely and utterly obsessed with their subject, and were unable to rest without following some new angle or another. Such was their obsession that it affected both their professional and personal lives, often detrimentally. These aren't conventional cinematic heroes; these are the guys who'll go through the grind day after day, committed to their quest for answers and closure, and ultimately, justice. The film allows us to experience the sheer scale of their Herculean task, and deals us the same sucker punch they received at the end - we'll never really know for sure who it was.
Cinematically it's like the serial killer version of 'All the President's Men', taking a seemingly mundane aspect of historical events and making it something fascinating and gripping by focusing on making the film atmospheric and believable. There is no narrative trickery and no caricatures. The style is muted with none of the overly showy camerawork Fincher demonstrated in his last few films. It presents a wholly convincing recreation of the era and lets the setting, the script and the actors take centre stage. The performances from the three leads, whose paths cross but who mostly work alone, are superb as they depict men who become, literally, addicted to their work while trying to maintain (mostly unsuccessfully) some element of normalcy in their lives. Ruffalo is no nonsense and street smart as Toschi, while Gyllenhaal unsurprisingly plays the bookish nerd with a proclivity for puzzle solving. Downey Jr. has the least screen time but he's terrific as the egotistical and charismatic star reporter.
All in all, an excellent and under appreciated film that came and went without many people taking notice. Overlong and slow? Hell no - honest and absorbing! 'Zodiac' is definitely one of the better films from last year - immaculately made and a fresh, revitalizing take on a genre that hasn't offered anything nearly as good in the last few years.