Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Auteur Files #2- David Fincher's Zodiac (2007)

I haven’t watched Se7en in over a decade, but remember it as a damn good movie, so good that I went to the theatre to see Fincher’s follow up, The Game, and found myself being a little let down. I don’t recall thinking that it was a bad film (I’d like to see it again), and I certainly didn’t place Fincher my personal purgatory of directors, but I must confess that I’ve not seen either Fight Club or Panic Room. I will eventually, sure. Fight Club quickly gathered a coterie of rather annoying male fans that gave me an aversion to the whole thing, and Panic Room just happened to slip by me.
The fact that I hadn’t been keeping up with Fincher made my recent viewing of Zodiac all the more surprising. It’s an ambitious movie that beautifully integrates a startling amount of elements into its long running time, never falling into heavy-handedness or self-indulgence. Marketed as a serial killer flick, it’s really something much more than that, instead a deft interweaving of police procedural and newspaper drama that chooses a true story that never came to any satisfying (i.e. predictably cinematic) conclusion. The film works superbly on so many levels that I’m not a bit hesitant to declare that I prefer it to 2007’s other critically acclaimed movie about modern violence, that being The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men.
scores big points for not following the standard path of most serial killer stories. The general trend since Silence of the Lambs has been to subtly turn the pathological into something sexy, with the killers taking on variations of dysfunctional superhero, fucked-up moral crusader (Se7en fits this description), or charismatic nutcase. By now the trend has become rather entrenched, and it’s gotten tiresome.
It seems that Fincher has made some serious strides as a filmmaker since Se7en, choosing to tackle the weird phenomenon of California’s Zodiac killer without any identification or romanticizing of the person responsible. The fact that nobody was ever caught might seem to play a big part in this at first, but the thorny complexity of the case and the killer’s bizarre self-promotion through the media really cry out for the kind of cinematic idealization that’s become the norm. Fincher simply eschews the temptation: the murders are filmed with ample violent intensity, but are not presented to the viewer as a series of trophy shots that ultimately serve as celebration of the acts, and while it would be false to describe the movie as humanist, it also lacks the contempt for humanity that many serial killer films (or films that feature killing in general) display, instead choosing a detached sensibility that is sympathetic to the characters without developing favorites. Zodiac isn’t about the killer at all, but uses his actions as a vehicle for a film that intensely examines information overload and human obsession. The violence is frontloaded in the movie, the flow of events always moving forward (no flashbacks).The importance of the murders isn’t the tension and release of the acts, but instead the lasting impact they have on other people. When a likely suspect emerges into the narrative, his presence isn’t at all engaging. Instead he’s a mostly bland (a little creepy) character with a pedophiliac past. Then he promptly disappears from the story (to return later, in one of the movie’s best scenes) as the focus centers on the march of time and how the lack of resolution affects the lives of the characters that make up the bulk of the film.
Fincher shot digitally, only apparently using film-stock in a few instances, but you wouldn’t know that from the structure of the film, which harkens back to a more classical style, using an economy of shots that are often quite beautiful in their construction. The visual texture is rich, with a great use of color, but it is also somewhat low-key, lacking grandstanding or hyperbole, which matches the acting. Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., and especially Jake Gyllenhaal all give outstanding, mature performances, and when the film’s judicious depiction of period is taken into consideration, it becomes clear that any shortcomings Zodiac has will only be revealed, if at all, by further more attentive viewing. Sure, some will be frustrated by its preoccupation with systems, procedures, and puzzles, and the almost three hours required to watch it might bug others, but I happen to find these elements actually work in the movie’s favor. The way the story deeply delves into how the characters do their jobs and struggle to come up with answers never feels mundane. It seems less about realism and more about the steady build up of information and momentum, which certainly requires time, and while I certainly noticed the film’s length it really added to the effectiveness of the whole thing (and to the points that were quietly made), starting in the late 1960s and ending in the early 1990s.
As far as similarities with other films, Zodiac’s attention to the detail of systems and procedures reminds me of Fritz Lang minus that director’s often caustic view of human behavior. It is also somewhat reminiscent of the ‘70s work of Alan Pakula (All the President’s Men) and the police centered films of Sidney Lumet. There is no homage in this movie though; instead it seems to exist as a standalone work that consciously resists the temptation to fall back on any specific earlier stylistic tropes (its general tendency to classical film style isn’t self-conscious or inclined to any particular filmmaker’s signature). To expand, the bulk of the film is set in the 1970s, and while Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (a film also inspired by the string of Zodiac murders) becomes a brief part of the story, the film never reaches for the (anti)-conventions that are a large part of that decade’s most revered movies. This is particularly notable during the ending, which while leaning toward one suspect as the killer, still lacks the sense of closure that most Hollywood films feature. One recurring aspect of ‘70s cinema was how many pictures ended in one big question mark, sometimes successfully, other times with a ham-fisted attempt at profundity that would miss its mark by a wide margin (My, aren’t we deep?). Maybe the studio denied Fincher and Co the opportunity to end on this type of lingering ambiguousness, but my gut reaction is to credit the creators with the denouement’s mixture of no emotional closure and the attempt through written text on black screen to arrive at an ending that didn’t leave audiences with a shoulder-shrugging That’s it?. I really want to see the longer cut of this, because my suspicion is that the ending will be the same. It deals with its lack of a tidy emotional conclusion in a contemporary way, fitting quite well with the rest of the film. Zodiac mixes genres but isn’t a genre movie. It’s influenced by the past but not beholden to or infatuated with it. One of the strongest compliments I can give it is to describe it as being a film completely of its period. It’s not avant-garde (that is to say, ahead of its time) or cultish, though it uses state of the art tech to increase its effectiveness, its efficiency. Its maturity and knowledge of the past never for an instant leans toward stodginess or self-importance; instead it moves with a smart, smooth pace that is plugged into the specific complexities of right now.
Zodiac dumps a shit-load of information on us and then deftly pulls us along to a point where we are asked to swallow the lack of finality. Its characters spend the entire running time either refusing or finally finding ways to let go of the past, and when it’s clear that all the principals in the film have come to that crossroads, the credits are rolling, and then we have to make that choice as well. The choice that the film makes is clear, for like any truly contemporary artwork (lit, film, painting, music, etc) its direction is soundly delineated: Forward.


G said...

Nice write up. I caught this for the 2nd time tonight on TV and both myself and my girlfriend were struck by Fincher's colour palette in this flick. Once you pick up on the yellow at the beginning it becomes almost intrusive. (red, blue and a tiny bit of green are also employed too)

Then, in the second part of the film, blue becomes the dominant colour (along with orange) seemingly in order to represent the obsession of certain characters. It put us in mind of a couple of rather famous painters who also had yellow and blue periods....

I wonder if you have any thoughts on any of this?

Joseph said...

Hey, thanks for the comment.

I've been holding off on watching this again since I want to see the longer cut with friends, but what you say certainly makes sense. It's obvious that Fincher is incredibly sensitive to every visual detail in his films, but in a way that very subtle. So I'll need to check it again to comment on the specifics of the color scheme. What caught me on my previous two viewings was the vividness of the color, how it all felt "right" and yet was deeper, brighter and generally just a slight bit more intense than the color palate in most current movies. I do recall a shift in the color tone, but being caught up in so many other aspects of the film, I hadn't pipointed exactly what that was. I'll be paying close attention on my next viewing soon.

Thanks again....