Sunday, May 27, 2007

Review - Zodiac

The history of cinema's attraction to serial killers is a long, complex and abiding one. Ever since the days of the whistling child murderer in Fritz Lang's seminal masterpiece M - arguably the first and still the greatest film in this genre - the serial killer movie has become a steady staple on the big screen. Numerous filmmakers have used these gruesome tales for a whole range of purposes - social satire (American Psycho), the sensationalism of the media (Natural Born Killers), Freudian subtext (Psycho) or the voyeurism of cinema (Peeping Tom) - while many have simply settled for straightforward thrillers and good old-fashioned shock value. In 1992 The Silence of the Lambs - a film featuring a cross-dressing murderer, a man's face being eaten off, and semen being thrown at the female lead - won five major Oscars, confirming that the serial killer had firmly established himself as part of the Hollywood mainstream.

David Fincher's exceptional
Zodiac is one of the few films since that picture which really seems to be taking the genre into fresh territory; in fact, it's the best American film of its type since Fincher's own 1995 thriller Se7en, although the two couldn't be more different in their style and mode. Se7en was a film which took advantage of generic clichés in order to subvert them; it gave us two mismatched cops, a devoted wife, a killer who always seems to be a step ahead of the game, and an exciting chase sequence; but then it suddenly shifted gears and threw us off course in the final quarter of the picture, before hitting the audience square in the guts with an unforgettably bleak climax. In contrast, Zodiac is a methodical, painstakingly detailed procedural which is about more than just the mysterious murderer whose name appears in the title. It is about the men who found their lives inextricably caught up in a case which had no end; it's about obsession, frustration and, finally, the bitter taste of failure.

The Zodiac killer was responsible for at least five murders in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960's and early 70's, and through his letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, he claimed responsibility for many more. The letters he sent were written in code, containing passages such as:
"I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANAMAL OF ALL…". Jack the Ripper reputedly sent similar letters to London newspapers during his reign of terror, but The Zodiac was the first American serial killer to utilise the mass media in this way, maintaining the public's sense of fear and turning himself into a legend by constantly taunting his pursuers. The fact that nobody was ever brought to justice for these crimes is the final twist in a baffling crime story.

Zodiac views the case through the eyes of three characters. Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) was the SFPD Officer in charge of this investigation, an intelligent and dedicated cop who also had a taste for the more glamorous side of life, being Steve McQueen's consultant for his role in Bullitt, for example. The second figure in the story is Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the San Francisco Chronicle's star writer who Downey plays as a charming, hard-drinking dandy; and finally there's Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young cartoonist on the same newspaper. It was Graysmith who ultimately became consumed with the Zodiac mystery, obsessing over it long after the killings had stopped and the final communication had been received. His passion for the truth resulted in two books on the case, books which have formed the basis for James Vanderbilt's impressive screenplay.

This film isn't structured anything like your average serial killer movie. Most of the film's 'action' occurs in the opening third, with the long, fruitless investigation subsequently being allowed to play out over the bulk of
Zodiac's running time. This approach proves utterly compelling thanks to the way Vanderbilt filters the overload of detail in his script (this is one of the most information-packed films since JFK) and the superb handling of the material by Fincher, who has reigned in his usual trickery this time around. Fincher's aesthetic stylisations were a perfect match for his two magnificent 90's films - Se7en and Fight Club - but with the disappointing Panic Room it was almost as if his ability to push his camera through a keyhole or around a corner was the only thing keeping him interested, given the mediocre nature of the story he was working with.

Zodiac Fincher generally adopts a much more restrained style, cutting back on the flashy touches and trusting in the innate strength of his material, but his imagination and skill manifests itself in different ways. The CGI-created flyovers are breathtaking (I was amazed when I discovered there wasn't a single helicopter shot in the film), and Fincher also uses his mastery of visual effects to give us a couple of pleasing interludes - a brief scene in which the Chronicle office seems to be covered wall-to-wall in The Zodiac's letters recalls the IKEA sequence from Fight Club, and a remarkable time-lapse sequence of the Transamerica Pyramid's construction is a dazzling moment, and one of the most inventive "one year later"-type of shots I've ever seen. His handling of the murders is stunning as well; the first, occurring right at the start, is a masterpiece of slowly building tension, while a later lakeside killing is shocking, swift and brutal. Throughout Zodiac Fincher finds ways to make even the most potentially hackneyed scenes feel newly minted, giving them just a slightly different edge while keeping them resolutely real.

Fincher's more low-key approach to filmmaking here allows his cast to carry most of the film's weight, but the casting of Gyllenhaal as the nominal lead is one of the film's few misjudgements. He gives a decent, solid performance, but he just appears a little too callow and puppyish for the role, and the all-consuming obsession which later alienates his family doesn't register on Gyllenhaal's open features. Perhaps the deficiencies in his portrayal are highlighted simply because the performances from his co-stars Ruffalo and Downey Jr. are so sensational. In particular, Downey Jr. has enormous fun with the part of Paul Avery, and it's such a treat to see this actor - one of the most irresistibly watchable actors in American cinema - on such instinctive, endearing form. There are gems right down the cast list, with the excellent Anthony Edwards heading up a fine batch of reliable supporting players such as Brian Cox, Elias Koteas and Philip Baker Hall - and what a pleasure it is to see John Carroll Lynch being handed such a meaty role. But Fincher doesn't have much room for the female touch in this story, giving Chloë Sevigny little more than a thick set of glasses and a permanent scowl as Graysmith's disapproving wife, while Toschi's wife doesn't even get that much.

Zodiac does occasionally allow its delivery of information to grow congested, particularly in the final third when some judicious editing might have tightened things up, but that pacing does reflect the more diffuse nature of the investigation as the years dripped away and The Zodiac became an irrelevance for all but a few. In any case, complaints such as this are minor quibbles when held up against the high quality of the overall piece. From the old-style Paramount logo which opens the film, everything just feels right in this picture, with Fincher's fastidious attention to detail bearing fruit in the film's wonderful evocation of its era. The newsroom setting and investigative approach inevitably draws comparisons with All The President's Men, but the film which Zodiac brought to mind for me was Bong Joon-ho's 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder. Like that film, Zodiac finds a way to draw tension and intrigue from a story which we know will end in injustice and disappointment; it sucks us in to the world of men whose lives are defined my the elusive villain they chase, and it lets us share their indescribable frustration at having so much evidence in their hands, but forever lacking that final piece of the jigsaw which will allow them to close the deal. Zodiac is an obsessive film about obsession, a gripping film about the refusal to let go. The picture may end with a whisper after opening with a bang, but it still carries a haunting, chilling power which is hard to shake.