First screened and reviewed in March 2007
Director: David Fincher. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, Dermot Mulroney, Philip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, John Carroll Lynch, Brian Cox, Charles Fleischer, Clea Duvall, James LeGros, John Getz, Candy Clark, John Mahoney, Adam Goldberg, Ciara Hughes, Lee Norris, Patrick Scott Lewis, Pell James, Ione Skye, Jimmi Simpson. Screenplay: James Vanderbilt (based on the books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked by Robert Graysmith).

Twitter Capsule: Stunning sequences, innovative photography, but thematizing endless, futile pursuits can't justify all the shapeless excess.

VOR:   Maybe Fincher's consummate statement, even if I like it less than some others. Revered by filmmakers. Risky structure, innovative photography. Serial-killer film as time-place meditation.

Ed. May 2014: This is the kind of prolix, poorly structured review that I'm often tempted to vacuum off the site. The syntax gets so tortuous and the ideas so oddly structured that I can't make sense of all the ideas here, and I wrote it! In these ways, the writing embarrasses me more than my open skepticism about whether anyone would even remember Zodiac in a few years' time, which is at least an honest record of how I felt at the time. I'll leave the review for now in case anything here is of interest to anyone, but trust me, I know it requires a rewrite.

Photo © 2007 Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures
When Zodiac is remembered, if and when it is remembered, I suspect it will be for the sequence in which two lolling lovers are stabbed by the side of a glittering lake. Each shot and edit has clearly been framed and timed with precision, transpiring as a sort of immaculate storyboard series that no one ever revised, or needed to. This precision hasn't dulled the sequence, and in fact it amplifies a mood of scalpel-edged exactitude that is the closest Fincher comes to evoking the murderer's sensibility. The serene chatter of the lovers stutters at the uncomfortably comic approach of a masked man in a pathetically crude home-sewn disguise. Suddenly, and with a grotesque rebuke to the placid surroundings and static camera, this ridiculous figure embodies an extraordinary danger, leading in a few moments to an unflinching view of a knife-blade as it repeatedly cuts into the woman's abdomen. She, bound and gagged, struggles and screams in her restraints, her desperate gaze simultaneously aimed at her boyfriend and the camera. The whole episode, scented with Lynchian horror, traverses a space between the absurd and the lethal, between public tranquility and intimate assault, until that space seems like no space at all.

Such dichotomies and implicit challenges to those dichotomogies persist as motifs throughout the rest of Zodiac. Much more often, though, and certainly on the evidence of the film as a whole, Zodiac tips away from the compressed virtuosity of the lakeshore sequence and wrestles with the compulsions and vacillations of its characters, with the copious red herrings of a plot based on real events, with an element of discursivity, verging on disorganization, in the film's own structure and grammar. Fincher has the gifts of a florid stylist, and I suspect this is why he so often favors scripts with built-in conceits to govern his impulses. His best films, Se7en and Alien³, respectively locked themselves into a serialist plot-construction and a hermetic, sparsely outfitted setting. Within those constraints, glimmers of personality and eruptions of physical and moral chaos made for gripping spectacle. Fight Club, to the extent that the story depends on a spiral into anarchy, for this very reason posed a risk to Fincher's methods. The charge of Fincher sparking to his material is dazzlingly productive for the first hour so, but the film loses its traction and mucks up its thematic projects as the literal and psychological explosions unfold. Most recently, the hateful Panic Room swerved so far back toward a minimalist set-up and a harshly controlled scenario—a woman and her daughter, locked in a room—that the movie had to violate that scenario in order to achieve any conflict, or even any plot. (The lascivious nastiness of image and tone, meanwhile, can only be blamed on the direction, not the script.)

Zodiac literalizes the pulls in Fincher's own corpus between method and madness, but rather than falling prey to systemic breakdown like Fight Club does, or ascribing that breakdown to such outlandish, convenient figurations as a schizophrenic protagonist or (as in The Game) a multimillion-dollar surprise-party prank, Zodiac works outward from the quickly infected splinters of entropy that worry away at two highly regimented procedures: the tactics of a serial killer and the strategies of his pursuers. The killer in Se7en, we ultimately realize, violates his own recipe by presupposing and even prompting sin in his final crime, rather than locating and punishing misdeeds in the six previous crimes. This ironic perversity on the part of John Doe (and of Andrew Kevin Walker's script) is so sadistically calibrated that it actually demonstrates the rigors of structure even as it seems to break a pattern. Zodiac, in form and in representation, describes a very different arc, or lack of arc. The killer, if indeed there is only one of them, is brilliantly self-concealing in some moments, self-betraying in others, self-advertising in still others. He botches some attempted killings and claims responsibility for "successful" murders he may not have performed. Meanwhile, the police plotline refuses a logical trajectory toward better and better evidence, sharper and sharper deductions, even as it also eschews simple bafflement. Clues accrue, then disperse, then reassemble themselves. The investigation atomizes across several jurisdictions, with multiple and often unharmonious leaders, beset by flagging rhythms of interest, abandonment, and revitalized conviction. The police inquiries bleed into personal and familial scenes instead of just veering away from them as they tend to do in more melodramatic films, and the entire ethos and praxis of journalism palpably shifts over the years that the Zodiac case remains unsolved. The sprawling story doesn't furnish protagonists so much as it roils first this character and then that and then another to the foreground of the film, like an ocean current yielding different debris at different times on the deceptively smooth surface of the water. Even the title is something of a misnomer, revealingly rooted in arbitrary lore that quickly barnacled itself onto this strange case, earning the anonymous killer a moniker that barely fit.

What results is a film that avoids the turgid shapelessness or the hollow technicality of the worst sequences of Fincher's earlier movies, and which even marks an important step forward in scope, ambition, and visual variety. Zodiac, as the sun-kissed stabbing sequence bespeaks, is less wedded than a Fincher movie ever has been to nightscape colors and swallowing shadows, deploying these where they are most effective (as in a terrifying highway interlude with an uncredited Ione Skye as a stranded mother) but ruling them out of the newspaper offices and California street scenes where they wouldn't make much sense. The chief chromatic memory I take away from Zodiac, in its production design as well as its lighting, is a jaundiced tint rather than an enveloping black, rhyming with the way the characters' psychologies tend to get gnawed and spoiled around the edges rather than vacuumed out at their centers.

Zodiac's delight in disorder democratizes the script, complicates and sometimes neutralizes the suspense, and even illuminates a raffish quality in both police and print investigations that has rarely been so mercilessly captured in a mainstream thriller. The ghoulishness of the slayings, all of which are cordoned into the opening half-hour or so, is potently ballasted in the later hours by a certain ethical ghoulishness prompted in the audience: after so much postponement and bewilderment, we are hardly inclined to afford due-process to the first likely suspect who emerges. Our sense of wrongdoing as well as our generic filmgoing tastes demand satisfaction, perhaps irresponsibly; Mark Ruffalo, Elias Koteas, and some other wily pro's thus have their acting work cut out for them, signalling the excitement of the hunt as well as the necessity of playing by the rules. Some enterprising graduate student will one day write a superlative extended reading of Zodiac that positions the film as an eloquent essay on lumbering bureaucracy and vengeful expediency in the era of 9/11 (even though Fincher works scrupulously to reprise the 1970s idiom in which the story actually unfolded).

All of that said, Zodiac's cast doesn't always seem as precisely keyed in to the erratic cadences and narrative zig-zags of the movie as, say, the formidable ensemble of The Departed did, and for as many sequences and performances that Fincher has managed artfully, there are others that falter under too-strong or too-weak concepts. A blind date between Jake Gyllenhaal's case-obsessed cartoonist (buried in the script, as in this review, as the shambling center of the plot) and Chloë Sevigny's antsy but game Girl plays out as a genuinely unnerving interlude of pondering a friend's endangerment, while also exquisitely capturing the way a personal, even romantic relationship can take hold amid the most forbidding circumstances of distraction and morbidity. After that promising beginning, though, Zodiac races forward to the couple's future life as a married couple with children, and consigns Sevigny to nagging-bystander duties. Robert Downey Jr. gets stuck in a similarly narrow emotional range and worse, he typecasts himself even more than Fincher does, playing wiseacre crime reporter Paul Avery as a Downeyian dandy doomed to Downeyian dissolution. The entire newsroom subplot suffers from his short-view privileging of personality over bringing out the currents and logics of the script.

In its opening passages, Zodiac can't help associating murder with structure (the killings are the tightest and most show-offy sequences) and wider society with disarray and confusion. In its middle third, the movie amasses unexpected depth and interest by confounding those binaries, but by the end, even as Zodiac avoids lapsing into outright messiness, one longs for a more controlling perspective on the material, a more persuasive statement of cultural or psychological value in telling this story. Fincher resists exploitation to a degree that risks a certain thematic reticence, and perhaps places too much distance between the characters' experience and our own—especially since that distance doesn't endow us with any superior or ironic understanding of what we are observing. I'm impressed with Fincher's delicate formal and tonal control in Zodiac's best passages—a long, testy interview in a factory cafeteria ranks high on this list—but sometimes this restraint feels like a gag in the movie's throat, or a damper on its affective potential. Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith, for instance, teeters into unhealthy obsession with this frustrating case, but unlike the recent Black Dahlia, Zodiac can't or won't engrain such zealous derangement into the form of the piece. Fincher's film is therefore easier to tout as "good" filmmaking than De Palma's is, and without courting any safe or boring templates for "good" movie-making; however, its highs rarely get near the Olympian charge of Dahlia's most inspired moments of insanity, and without tasting of its characters' madness, Zodiac has a harder time explaining why, at 160 minutes, it's standing so long over their shoulders, reeling along with them among hunches and doubts, breakthroughs and chastisements, peaks and valleys. The sole sequence in Zodiac's second half that is willing to court real danger and shiver its audience feels disappointingly obvious in its methods (creaky floorboards, dank basements, frazzled low-light digital photography) and unfathomable in its behavioral and narrative logic, typifying a movie that always has a lot going for it but can't always articulate exactly what that is. Zodiac is frequently riveting and augurs for unexpected new directions in Fincher's work, but it also showcases too much obvious preference between the scenes and characters it takes closely to heart and those it allows to fend for themselves. Grade: B

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