Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Three

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#3 — Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
With Zodiac, David Fincher stakes out the compelling argument that if a true-life story is worth telling in the first place, it doesn’t necessarily need embellishments and alterations. Biopics and docudramas routinely hammer fact and history into different shapes designed to accommodate the common strictures of narrative storytelling, the need for clear protagonists and antagonists, and the steady procession to a succinct ending that satisfactorily wraps things up, bring everything to a logical, cohesive conclusion. But that’s how things actually work. Life doesn’t proceed in clean, easily decipherable lines. It is stop-start, full of diversions and digressions, and since, by definition, everyone is the protagonist in their own story, no one takes the lead in the bigger overall story. It is fragmented, like a broken plate. Even if you can see how the pieces fit together, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to assemble them into a smooth whole. There will be cracks and divots and unexpected sharp edges. It will be rough, uneven. And maybe that plate will have more character because of it.

Fincher’s film is about the Zodiac, the serial killer whose string of crimes terrorized the San Francisco area during the nineteen-seventies, and the efforts in various quarters to unearth his identity. Working from a script written by James Vanderbilt, Fincher sticks to the facts. He meticulously tracks through the grim history, ushering the audience directly to the scenes of the crimes as the murders are committed, and then switching focus to the police detectives and newspaper workers who try to unravel the mystery the killer puts in front of them, both in the form of the seeming randomness of the victims and in coded messages that he mails to the media. As horrific as it all is, it is also a puzzle, one that is made all the more alluring by the lack of certainty that accompanies it. There’s no checking in the back of the book to see if the attempt at solving it is progressing in a fruitful manner. Good leads and intriguing theories are routinely met with no clear sense that they are getting closer. We’re well outside of the realm of Perry Mason or Miss Marple or any number of Hollywood thrillers that followed in their wake, in which simply voicing well-founded suspicions was enough to get the guilty party to step up and shout an anguished confession. Here the perpetrator stays stubbornly hidden. It’s one of Fincher’s great achievements that he provides a strong sense of how this very quality–the questions that can never quite be answered, the swelling unknowable shadow at the heart of it all–only makes the puzzle that more alluring for those drawn helplessly into it.

These individuals are, in a way, the distant victims of the Zodiac, those who he damages not with the thrust of a knife, but with the echoes of his villainy. Just as the film captures how easily they get drawn into the hunt for the killer’s identity, so too does it make the repercussions of those obsessions achingly real. We see the damage wrought on those who can’t turn away from the case even after the trail has grown cold, and on those who became too enamored of the hero’s attention they received for their efforts in hunting the murderer, leaving them unprepared for the emptiness that emerged within them when that attention dissipated. Fincher doesn’t dig into their psyches, cooking up some sort of childhood trauma or parental abandonment issues or equally cliched backstory that often gets grafted onto driven cinematic souls. Almost every character in the film is defined solely by their interaction with the Zodiac case, making it all the more impressive that, to a person, they emerge fully rounded. Even the small roles–officers in little communities that the killer has crossed through or those questioned about the case–have a unique vividness to them, the triad of writing, directing and acting integrating perfectly for fully realized characters moving through a astutely crafted world. When you’re not certain which details really matter, then all of them do. That seems to be the guiding principle of Fincher. No moment is thrown away, no person is incidental. This helps to make the film fully engrossing. It rewards your attention.

Throughout the film, Fincher demonstrates a complete command of the mechanics of filmmaking. There’s a scene involving Paul Avery, the investigative reporter played by Robert Downey Jr., engaged in shaky practice at a shooting range with a handgun he procured after the Zodiac directly threatened him. His newsroom cohort, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, reads a story from that days edition describing the measures taking by other journalists in town. They’ve take to wearing buttons emblazoned with the message “I AM NOT AVERY” as a security measure. Avery himself is sporting one. As Gyllenhaal finishes reading the news story, he shifts his hand and reveals that he too is wearing one of the buttons. The emergence of this piece of information gets a laugh, but Fincher doesn’t push the joke. It’s a completely natural movement for Gyllenhaal to make, lowering the newspaper as he’s completed reading the story. Still it’s clearly staged to hold back that one piece of information. That’s one moment, an incredibly simple one at that, but it’s reflective of the precision that Fincher brings to the entire project.

That extends throughout the cast. Downey and Gyllenhaal are both excellent in their roles, Downey clearly and freely drawing upon personal experience (and capitalizing on the audience’s knowledge of that personal experience) to convey his character’s offhand decadence that signals his eventual slide to complete degradation, while Gyllenhaal gets at an oddball naivete that makes him a likely candidate to chase this warped nemesis relentlessly. They’re joined by Mark Ruffalo, immersing himself in the shuffling rhythms of Inspector David Toschi, increasingly frayed by his inability to fulfill his duty to bring the killer to justice. Even beyond the leading roles, Fincher looks to strong actors, and gets tremendous work from them. The likes of Brian Cox, Anthony Edwards, Clea DuVall, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, Charles Fleischer and Philip Baker Hall make major impressions with limited screen time. Perhaps best of all the supporting players is John Carroll Lynch as a prime suspect, bringing delicacy and chilling undercurrents to his role. He hints at troubling possibilities simmering under the exterior.

The film ends the only way it could, given the integrity inherent in its storytelling approach. It ends with the sort of ambiguity that is commonplace in life, and nearly unheard of in the movies. It ends with the message that closure is not something that is given to you, bundled up in a tidy package. Instead, it is something you achieve. Inner satisfaction comes not from an external pronouncement, but through finding your way to the closest form of confirmation possible, even if that’s just looking in someone else’s eyes and judging what truth you find there.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)