The Thrill of the Hunt: David Fincher's Zodiac at 10
When most people think of director David Fincher, their minds instantly leap to his more culturally popular work like Seven, Fight Club, and his Academy-Award winning film The Social Network.
But it was in 2007 that his several-year-spanning crime procedural Zodiac was released, and where the director achieved his greatest and most accomplished feat to date, one that he has not replicated in scope or detail in the time that has passed.
The idea to do this film was incepted in Fincher's mind from a young age, as a boy growing up around the notorious case in which a handful of people in the San Francisco area were violently attacked and/or murdered by an unknown assailant. After reading writer James Vanderbilt's screenplay which recalled these early memories, Fincher went to work on crafting something that wouldn't just be another serial killer yarn like his 1995 commercial hit Seven, but one that focused almost squarely on the opposite side of the law - the people tasked with uncovering clues and identifying suspects, and the toll that is taken after years of investigation.
Zodiac opens in 1969 on the Fourth of July in Vallejo, San Francisco, as young couple Mike Mageau and Darlene Ferrin drive around town looking to enjoy each other's company for the evening. From the very start, Fincher gives the viewer a sentimental, nostalgia-driven look at the period through their eyes, as fireworks are going off around them and the sweet sounds of Three Dog Night playing in the background. Stopping in a desolate area , they soon realize that another driver has been stalking them. Frozen in apprehension, their hesitation to drive away while there's time comes at a price as the driver exits his car, brandishes a handgun, and shoots each of the lovers. Darlene is killed, but Mike survives.
This prologue is meant to set the film into motion, but curiously, the rest of the film doesn't quite conform to one's preconceived notions after witnessing such a blood-curdling sequence. There's only one additional scene of the Zodiac killer committing murder, and like the first, its with a couple and only the man lives. These murder scenes are impossible to forget once you've seen them, as they are framed through a mix of extreme long-shots which give a grand display of the environment, intercut with moments where the camera is placed right up with the Zodiac's prey, intensifying the feelings of helplessness. And in a stroke of genius, Fincher allows the viewer to see the site of the crime following the act itself, as the barely-alive men are positioned as vulnerable, but more importantly, instituting the paranoid thought that maybe, perhaps, this could happen to you too - pushing the case into the realm of possibility for many San Franciscans at the time, and enabling it to be a matter of considerable concern.
But as stated earlier, Zodiac is a film about the people who lose their lives to the titular killer - not through violence, but from the amount of resources, money, and most important of all - time - that is expended in pursuit of the answer. In order to do this, Fincher and his creative team spent a year and a half analyzing the case from every angle, interviewing every living person associated with the case, and surveying archival police files; ultimately concocting a vast level of valid details that enhanced Vanderbilt's script, to the point that at times it feels less like a movie and more of a cinematically-oriented oral history.
If you know anything about the director's work ethic, this hardly seems like a surprise. Fincher doubles down on the details and induces the viewer to keep track of every clue in the investigation as a means of staying energized. The focus on the facts of the case leads to a fairly standard shooting style (one that makes great use of close-ups and insert shots to give the viewer a point-of-view perspective), that it rarely breaks away from across its entire runtime. In giving an exact narrative of key events, one that avoids including fictionalized moments of action or suspense to keep the audience entertained, Zodiac becomes unlike any of the director's previous films to date.
Our protagonists are Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle where the Zodiac begins to send his letters about his killings and a series of coded messages as well, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) a flamboyant reporter at the same paper, and inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) who enter the film at the start of its second act and help to define its procedural edge. Each character brings a different sensibility to the plot, whether its Avery's showy sense of drunken flamboyance (RDJ would be cast as Iron Man shortly after the film was released) or Graysmith's boyscout mentality, that the film begins to reshape itself when one of them is the anchor of a prominent section. And while at first it seems like these men are merely vessels to tell the Zodiac killer's story, over time the real tension and crisis begins to unfold around themselves when the case eventually runs into a series of dead ends or conflicting evidence.
A substantial portion of the film is dedicated to just this element, in which we see how the lives of each man is derailed by the case. Avery gets the worst of it, becoming erratic and driven by substance abuse the last time he is seen. While Toschi is persistent in his side of things, eventually his partner Armstrong decides to transfer to another department, as even he can see that the proverbial well has dried up. And while Graysmith plays kid detectives in the first section, eventually he is the one man still driving the case forward several years later, even after its destroyed his family life.
The greatest scene in the film comes around the halfway point, in which Toschi, Armstrong, and Sgt. Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) interview one of the possible suspects, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch). It's a simple questioning procedure, but the camera and editing style alerts us to red flags in what Allen gives in his testimony versus the facts we know up to that point. The fact he even wears a watch with the Zodiac's symbol on it - an element which comes up earlier in the film after Graysmith discovers it, feels like Fincher is trying to give the audience a big hint as to where the story is going. But later as we find out, there's too much conflicting evidence to bring in Allen, much to the disappointment of the detectives, and the viewer as well.
This scene and its later revelations mirror what Zodiac feels like on the whole - slowly inching closer to the truth we're anticipating, only to reveal a dead end. We're so used to seeing films in this subgenre play out in a similar way; fictionalizing the facts and handing the culprit to the viewer on a silver platter, so they don't have to worry about it on the car ride home.
Returning to Graysmith, who ends up chasing red herrings for a while (and even finds himself in one of the most genuinely unnerving basement scenes in modern cinema), eventually he gets something of a closure to the case, when in 1983 he confronts Arthur Leigh Allen at his place of work, not to accuse him of murdering several people, but to just look at him so he can put a face to the symbol that has long plagued him. While the scene suggests that Graysmith may finally be able to move on from this case, we as the viewer still can't, based on having seen the conflicting evidence that suggests it wasn't Allen, and if this is just Graysmith's tired and nerve-wracked attempt to finally quash the demons inside of him.
By the final scene, set in 1991 where an adult Mike Mageau from the film's prologue is brought in by the police to visually identify a suspect, to which he squarely fingers Allen - the viewer's idea of what kind of film this would be based on the common tropes of the genre are completely and utterly pulverized. But this is exactly what makes Zodiac so engrossing. We don't actually get an ending, just one more clue before the credits roll. Allen isn't 100% the Zodiac, but he's our best bet. Then we find out he died a year after Mageau's questioning, without ever getting his due. Whoever the Zodiac is (or was), there's a good chance that they will never be brought to justice, and that's what makes the film so chilling; the idea that after every possible angle is explored, every notable acquaintance and bystander questioned, every clue and artifact examined, and every possible scenario imagined, nothing is solved at the end.
The film was expected to be part of Paramount's 2006 awards season slate, however Fincher's obsessive tinkering with the final cut (at one point over 3 hours) forced the studio to cancel their plans and push the film to the start of spring. One can only imagine how the film would have played against other heavy-weights of that season like The Departed, Babel, and Dreamgirls, or if its dialogue-driven nature would have been too much of a turnoff for those expecting something along the lines of Fight Club or Panic Room. Perhaps that's the reason why the film wasn't that much of a hit upon release, only making half of its $65 million budget back in the domestic marketplace (and to add insult to injury, getting demolished by Disney's leather daddy biker romp Wild Hogs in its opening weekend).
Zodiac is a definite contender for the best film of 2007, if not the most meticulous. I personally think its Fincher's best film of his filmography to date, despite not having the sense of resolution or immediacy or kinetic excitement which has been featured all across his previous and later features. But instead, it is Fincher's defining moment of true growth as a filmmaker, by tackling a structure and overriding theme that many others wouldn't dare to. Even amidst the rigorously analytical moments, there's a thick cloud of unknowing which hangs over the story and where things are bound to end up, which makes for an enthralling experience. Despite all this gloom, it offers something truly unique - a chronicle of men doing everything they can to make their city safe even when they move far beyond the brink of common sense, during a period of time when America was moving into a more chaotic territory and needed people like this. By Fincher's standards, that's pretty damn optimistic.