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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Zodiac (2007)

Directed by David Fincher
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny
Written by James Vanderbilt
Produced by Cean Chaffin, Brad Fischer, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer and James Vanderbilt
Music by David Shire

Some people say that Zodiac is director David Fincher’s masterpiece. It quite possibly is, although it’s not like his career is in decline and he hasn’t got a few good years left in him. Plus, this is the man who made Fight Club. Is one better than the other? It’s not like some directors don’t have two or even more masterpieces in them. Kubrick had 2001 and Dr. Strangelove, Kurosawa had Seven Samurai and Rashomon, Spielberg has Jaws and Schindler’s List.

Zodiac tells the story of the serial killer the press came to label as (funnily enough!) the Zodiac Killer who, for a period in the late 60’s and early 70’s, was linked to many murders, only a few of which were proven to be his. He gained notoriety by changing his methods and taunting the police and media with letters written in a cypher code, threatening to kill others (including a busload of school children) if his demands weren’t met. Filmmakers based Scorpio from the classic movie Dirty Harry on the Zodiac killer; interestingly, Fincher directly makes this reference within his film.

The rough draft of the final Harry Potter book was roundly criticized as a massive departure for the series

Zodiac benefits from three great lead performances by Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr and, especially, Mark Ruffalo as the driven inspector David Toschi (apparently Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character is partly based on the detective). You can see the case weighing down on their characters and their private lives, both physically and mentally, as the film goes on. Fincher establishes a great feeling of time and place, using detailed information gleaned from the crimes methodically without sacrificing the film’s tone or pacing. It’s not like those bullshit CSI-style shows which use show-off zooms into bits of evidence and corpses and the detectives do EVERYTHING, from investigations to interviews to forensic analysis to capturing the killer. Zodiac has a strong grounding in reality because it doesn’t flash up the police procedures involved in a case of this nature, and shows just how some cases can get bogged down in minutae and just plain bad luck. These sort of things aren’t necessarily filmic in nature, but somehow Fincher has made Zodiac utterly compelling; it may not be fast-paced, but it’s certainly not slow or dull. I’ve watched 80-minute shit-fests that feel far longer and drawn-out than Zodiac. Though it's occasionally show-offy, Zodiac presents the killings in such a clinical fashion that it makes them feel more chilling than if they were more stylised, especially a particularly brutal stabbing involving a young couple.

"Three letters, down...a domestic animal, known as man's best friend..."

I liken this film to the TV series The Wire – probably my favourite TV show ever, certainly one of the greatest series ever made. Like Zodiac, The Wire takes its time to delve into the methods that law enforcement uses which aren’t always glamorous, but they’re at least halfway truthful. For those who prefer the glamorous detective hijinks of, say, CSI or CSI: New York or CSI: Bethlehem, well, David Fincher wouldn't want you watching his brilliant crime film anyhow, so just go back to dragging your knuckles on the ground and picking nits out of your hair.

Best bit
detectives interview the cagey and unnerving Arthur Leigh Allen

Iconic moment
the intensely creepy driveby in 60's suburbia, shadowed by fireworks

Worst bit
a late scene in a suspect's basement reeks of try-hard suspense

Best line
"Methinks our friend's a tad bit fuckered in the head."

Best performance
Mark Ruffalo's David Toschi; hard-arsed but haunted

David Fincher, who has crafted an elegant, and eerie, crime thriller

What would have made this better
probably just the removal of the basement sequence with Gyllenhaal, and not much else

What would have made this worse
if they'd tacked on a deliberately happy ending

Companion film
Dirty Harry, obviously

What to watch instead
if you're after a more straightforward, but equally brilliant, serial killer thriller, go for Silence of the Lambs

If you liked this...
you're awesome, and you should watch Fincher's Se7en (and if you've seen it, watch it again)

+ a superb recreation of 60's/70's America
+ uniformly excellent performances
+ utterly compelling, chilling, enthralling
+ doesn't take any easy (read: cheap) routes
+ treats the audience as intelligent
+ technically astonishing

- a couple of scenes ring false
- might be too long for some
- some of the murders are deeply unsettling (this might be a Pro if you're sick in the head)

Rating on the Andy Robinson/Scorpio killer scale of completely mental serial killers:

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