Friday, March 02, 2007

Zodiac (Or, when David Fincher grew up!) - Movie Review

Zodiac (2007)

“Histories of ages past
Unenlightened shadows cast
Down through all eternity
The crying of humanity.
'Tis then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Comes singing songs of love,
Then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Comes singing songs of love.”
- Donovan

When David Fincher first burst upon the movie making scene (after an abortive debut), with his sadomasochistic serial killer extravaganza “Se7en”, we went along for the ride due mainly to the ravishing visuals and the star leads; Morgan Freeman and our boy, Brad Pitt. When he and Brad reteamed for the sadomasochistic psychological black comedy “Fight Club”, we realized we had witnessed the birth of a clever cult classic that benefited greatly from Brad and Edward Norton’s one-two punch as the co-leads (literally), and of course any film that features the wonderful Helena Bonham Carter uttering the now classic line: “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school”, couldn’t be all bad. By the time we had witnessed his sadomasochistic take on “Lady in a Cage”, updated for the PlayStation® generation and wildly overdirected as “Panic Room”, we had begun to wonder.

Just how fucking sadomasochistic is this fucker? Yes, we think he has talent. Yes, we appreciate the care and detail he put into his projects. And he was by now more than able to line up the heavy hitters to star in his dark and dreary tales of violence, violence and more violence. And so, when we heard that his latest picture would focus on the investigation surrounding the identity of famed serial killer, self labeled “Zodiac”, we were concerned. Okay, we were repulsed. We threw up our hands in the air and declared: “Great, here we go again, more violence in well lit rooms, probably photographed from the viewpoint of the nail in the floorboard.”

Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. Like a cinematic phoenix from the bloody ashes of a tired genre, David Fincher has directed his most assured and mature work to date. Lining up a top notch roster of actors, armed with a warehouse full of information and investigative materials from Zodiac’s most famed chronicler, one Robert Graysmith and seemingly ditching his overt stylistic flourishes from his most famous flicks (almost), Fincher has delivered an epic on the terror stricken media frenzy that gripped the Bay Area throughout the seventies, when Zodiac came to call.

The film opens with Zodiac’s alleged first crime, the gristly shooting of a young couple parked in a “lover’s lane” hillside retreat. As the seemingly innocuous strains of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” play presciently over the car radio, the unlucky duo find themselves being taunted by a lone driver. This mystery man, who calmly and methodically leaves his vehicle to spray the pair with bullets is barely visible to the audience. From the very start of the movie, Fincher has demonstrated his control over the subject matter by refusing to glorify the violence – for a change, and daring to focus on the clinical facts of the case.

It is the correct choice. Although, it may not be one that your typical moviegoer will find appealing – which is even more reason to appreciate Fincher’s stunning new film. While we sat and watched the opening scene, a gleeful effluvium loving yelp let out from an audience member seated nearby. It was the kind of blood sniffing reaction that earmarks the main audience to the avalanche of grisly serial killer movies that have been in vogue for far too many years. We understand the appeal of “Grand Guignol”, and certainly over the centuries mankind has repeatedly demonstrated that there is nothing more entertaining than a good bloodletting: from the gladiator arena, to stoning the adulteress, to burning witches to the legendary “Faces of Death” series. American audiences are the first to queue up and pay their hardly earned dollars to sit and watch blood squirt from every dismembered body part.

The most incredible aspect of “Zodiac” is that while it does not shy away from violence, it is coldly removed from the more visceral aspects. This is no celebration of gore – it merely enumerates the murders as part of the larger investigation. An investigation that begins in of all places, the editorial meeting room of the San Francisco Chronicle. For once we have “seen” the murderer, he wants more than nothing else to be “seen” himself. He sends a notorious admission of guilt announcing his plans to continue his killing spree, if the local area rags don’t print his note and accompanying cryptogram. A code that will lead to the first of many attempts to locate the killer. A killer who enjoys his fame and notoriety as much as committing his heinous acts of violence.

Now, while this film, despite it’s pedigree of cast and crew could have laid back on its collective haunches and played out the rest of the story with a network television crime drama pedantry – it chooses to delve a little deeper. For as it turns out, the identity of the Zodiac is less of interest than how the various police forces, journalists and one nosy cartoonist begin to play off each other in what soon becomes a political and social hotbed of fear, name calling and finger pointing. In short, a kind of twisted “Peyton Place” meets “Halloween”. For as any moviegoer who has ever sat through a serial killer flick will attest, the identity of the killer is never that interesting. It’s always some pathetic loner, living in a basement who enjoys pulling wings off chloroformed insects. No, what is fascinating is the atmosphere that spreads out across the killer’s path, and the manner in which the key players react.

In that, Fincher has managed to secure the most interesting cast to come down the pike in quite awhile. Our future husband, Jake Gyllenhaal leads the incredibly talented cast in the role of Robert Graysmith, a newspaper cartoonist whose fondness for puzzles sparks his mounting interest in the first menacing epistle delivered to his newspaper’s editor. A self described Eagle Scout of the highest rank, his sincerity in wanting to help the professionals is what drives him to such extraordinary lengths. An obsession with the Zodiac killer that will threaten to overtake his own life.

Robert Downey Jr. co-stars as Paul Avery, a reporter with a theatrical flair that is covering the crime beat and is the first to realize that young Graysmith may be of help in the investigation. When his involvement in the case becomes too personal, and the cost too high, he will discover that his method of coping with the pressure is . . . well, let’s just say that Robert Downey Jr. is the perfect actor for the role.

Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards appear as the detectives David Toschi and William Armstrong, who lead the charge in identifying the suspect. We loved their interaction – two detectives who have allegedly seen it all, but persevere in the middle of the three ring circus, in order to follow their gut instincts.

The rest of the cast is uniformly brilliant, with such fine character actors as Brian Cox, Philip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Dermot Mulroney, Elias Koteas, Candy Clark, Donal Logue, Adam Goldberg, James LeGros and Clea DuVall doing the highly detailed script proud.

The standouts include Brian Cox as the local celebrity lawyer, Melvin Belli. This larger than life huckster was as famous for his court cases as for his penchant for the cameras. What other famous lawyers do you know that can claim a genuine “Star Trek” acting credit, alongside his notorious appearance in the famed documentary “Gimme Shelter”. Mr. Cox is clearly having the time of his life portraying such a pompous charmer.

The underrated Clea DuVall is also highly effective in the role of a surprise witness, whose testimony one can hardly label cooperative. Rumor has it that Bijou Phillips was originally cast as the feisty Linda Ferrin, but was replaced due to scheduling. Another reason to praise David Fincher’s newfound maturity as an artist.

And ultimately, that is what we have to applaud. Fincher’s ability to maintain a tight pace, and interest throughout is to be commended. In particular, since the film is roughly two hours and forty minutes in length! Now, wait, wait – just hold on there a second. The film more than earns it demanding running time, due to its highly effective script. It is a wonderful compression of massive amounts of detailed information, including the various time, place and locations. The film is broken up into three larger arcs that carry us from the murderer, to the police investigation to the private campaign by Graysmith without ever losing its terrific momentum.
Perhaps there is precedence here, certainly the great “realistic” thrillers of the seventies come to mind: The French Connection”, “The Conversation”, “All the President’s Men and Prince of the City in particular. His ability to expertly handle the violent action sequences, we never questioned. It was his trust in the material and the cast that allowed him to avoid the more showman aspects of his earlier work that truly surprised us. We only quibble with the time lapse imagery of the raising of the Transamerica Pyramid (That transition shot belongs back in “Koyaanisqatsi”). Or his one lapse into familiar territory, where we are treated to another time lapse sequence that is etched with the killers scrawl painted over each frame.

Still, we didn’t expect him to abandon his own sense of directorial style, merely to suit our needs. We wouldn’t dream of asking a director to change who they are . . . unless they are Baz Luhrmann. But, back to the fine film in question. “Zodiac” is a rock solid piece of filmmaking that dares to upend the fanatically tired genre of serial killer expose by trusting the intelligence of its filmmakers. We pray that the filmgoers will respond in kind. Bless you all!

(Endnote: Is 2007 shaping up to be THE year for smart thrillers? What with the towering performance of Chris Cooper in “Breach” and the Oscar winning “The Lives of Others, we smell a thematically triumphal year! Let’s hope the ball keeps rolling in our favor.)

Directed by David Fincher
Screenplay by James Vanderbilt
Based on the book by Robert Graysmith

Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith
Mark Ruffalo as Inspector David Toschi
Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery
Anthony Edwards as Inspector William Armstrong
Brian Cox as Melvin Belli
John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen
Philip Baker Hall as Sherwood Morrill
Chloë Sevigny as Melanie
Dermot Mulroney as Captain Marty Lee
Elias Koteas as Sgt. Jack Mulanax
John Getz as Templeton Peck
Candy Clark as Carol Fisher
Ed Setrakian as Al Hyman
Donal Logue as Ken Narlow
Lee Norris as Mike Mageau
Jimmi Simpson as Mike Mageau (Older)
Ciara Hughes as Darlene Ferrin
Zach Grenier as Mel Nicolai
Adam Goldberg as Duffy Jennings
James LeGros as Officer George Bawart
Clea DuVall as Linda Ferrin
Micah Sauers as David Graysmith
Zachary Sauers as Aaron Graysmith

Cinematography by Harris Savides
Film Editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
Original Music by David Shire
Costume Design by Casey Storm
Production Design by Donald Graham Burt
Art Direction by Keith P. Cunningham
Set Decoration by Victor J. Zolfo



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