Tuesday 3 July 2012
(David Fincher, 2007) The film where Fincher grew up. A tense and engrossing study of obsession and failure, a whodunnit which doesn't really care whodunnit and a policier which meticulously depicts the procedural elements of a serial killer investigation at a crucial point in the 20th century, Zodiac is Fincher's best film. Its also the first where he allows the narrative and themes and characters to take priority over his directorial pyrotechnics. The pyrotechnics, the insane virtuosity, they're still there, they're just better integrated into the film, best seen in a series of remarkable crane shots, and an overhead tracking shot which is breathtaking but doesn't ever pull the viewer out of the story. Instead Fincher focuses on the details and in the process builds a convincing portrait of a time and place as much as he focuses upon the Zodiac investigation. The texture of Zodiac is thick with America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the mainly unseen and unremarked upon social and political upheaval of the era. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhal) works as a political cartoonist and we glimpse some of his work in passing, but he is more interested in Zodiac, as if seeking escape from his own job. His obsessive investigation gives the film its baggy structure, with extended episodes focusing more on the Official Investigation by various Police Detectives and Departments, and a few chilling recreations of the crimes themselves. We hear suggestions of the schism in American society on a talk radio programme. There are references to the pop culture of the times, too. Detective Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) was the real-life basis for Bullitt, and he is seen attending a special police screening of that other classic portrayal of the SFPD, Dirty Harry (which was partly inspired by the Zodiac case). The soundtrack is full of the music of the period, most of it put to perfect use, in particular Donovan's ever-creepy Hurdy-Gurdy Man - which I don't think I'll ever be able to hear again without thinking of this film, a signal of how well it was used. But mainly we are buried under the details of the case, just like the films protagonists. Each of them is ruined by it, defeated by its blind alleys and dead-ends. Fincher's film is heavy with scenes depicting men talking in offices and on telephones, and yet it manages to build and maintain suspense for two and a half hours. In this it recalls Alan J Pakula's magisterial All the Presidents Men (the deep-procedural aspect also suggested the influence of The Wire, always a good thing). The photography by Harris Savides is frequently beautiful, but it also vividly captures the lighting in the open plan offices of the SF Chronicle and the police department, contributing to the flat, banal tone which suggests the crushing repetitive dullness of the work these men are involved in. David Shire's subtle score is a direct reference to the films of the 70s Zodiac apes. Its few scenes of outright suspense are confidently, expertly staged and handled by Fincher, proving that he is best when holding back. The cast - illuminated by turns from Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Edwards and Elias Koteas - is uniformly great. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the sidelong way this approaches a Big American subject, its narrative steadily circling a few characters lost in a maze of detail and crumbling because of their inability to find a way out. The film is about the case but also about technology, how we feel about it and how it fails us (there are many references to mimeographing and early fax machines and a key plotpoint hangs upon the expertise of a handwriting specialist), and about the evil that seemed almost to hang in the air in the culture of the 1970s. It possesses a strange kind of density which reminded me of the work of Don DeLillo and Christopher Sorrentino's novel "Trance" (both of which investigate a similar era in US history). The density comes from the aggregation of detail, the depth of characterisation, and the polymathic tangents the narrative constantly threatens to follow before doubling back. All the while, we never lose sight of the evil at the centre of the story, which seems to baffle Fincher just as much as it baffles his characters. In seemingly keeping his focus so narrow, Fincher, together with screenwriter James Vanderbilt, is able to paint a panorama of a 20 year slice of history, and do it beautifully. This is a Great Film.