Friday, January 13, 2012

Zodiac (2007) A Film by David Fincher

The analog precursor to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's endless barrage of digital facts and details can be found in Zodiac. Both films share the central conceit of a serial killer investigation and both chart similar processes of individuals becoming subsumed by their respective cases. That Zodiac's case isn't solved and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's is, and that the timeline of the former covers decades and the latter a single Scandinavian winter, is a reflection of the technological junctures and speeds of life of the time periods, not necessarily an indication of the differing impacts of investigation on the thinking mind during those time periods. David Fincher is chiefly fascinated by time and how the progress of human resources and knowledge capitalizes on the elasticity of it (observing the two films side-by-side produces an overpowering cumulative effect that neither film could achieve singularly). But if The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is ultimately the slight regression of Fincher's skills that I claimed it in my review, it's because Zodiac's aesthetic and thematic heft take it somewhere far beyond what the script can offer, and because Fincher is interested in not only detailing the sense of time and emotion being backgrounded by an accumulation of investigative matters but also in expanding upon that foundation to riff on the epistemology of knowledge, the flexibility of our understanding of what constitutes truth, and the ways in which abstract fear spreads across a large group of people, problem-solving becomes obsession, and time manages to resolve the unresolved.

All of which is to say that Zodiac is the film, despite its placement roughly in the middle of the director's oeuvre, that Fincher's surrounding work builds to and erects a foundation for. Fincher's four early films are about obsession in one way or another, and Robert Graysmith's (Jake Gyllenhaal) search for the Zodiac killer of Southern California from the late 60's to the late 80's is an evocation of obsession at its purest and most costly (in terms of time, attention, labor, family relationships, etc.). Moreover, every film after Zodiac is about the inexorable march of time in one way or another, and Zodiac represents time at its heaviest and most burdensome; every second that ticks by is another second that a savage killer is on the loose. Finally, all of Fincher's films are honed in on process, and Zodiac unflinchingly depicts nearly every step of approximately twenty years of a process that is, technically speaking, ongoing to this day. The film takes the director's many obsessions and crystallizes them into a compulsively watchable 2-1/2 hour investigation that never strays from comprehensively (and indeed obsessively) augmenting its thematic import in every frame.

What elevates Zodiac above the standard procedural or thriller is its deliberate denial of genre conventions. The film's structure is its obvious idiosyncrasy: rather than helping to get progressively closer to a solution, the fastidious research in Zodiac only complicates the characters' investigations, taking them further and further away from identifying the titular killer. As the film continues, the Zodiac - already a mysterious, shadowy presence at the beginning - retreats exponentially from view, becoming more and more of an abstraction so that by halfway through the film the characters are ineffectively chasing an absence. After an outburst of murders in Vallejo, Napa County, and a San Francisco suburban district, respectively, that scatter the film's first hour, the Zodiac soon vanishes from criminal behavior and public awareness, squeezing the determination from the police force - headed by Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) - in the process. The killer's fading from notoriety presents a complex police scenario that necessitates a redefinition of justice. For one, Toschi can't place the pursuit of a man who was once a murderer and now poses little ostensible threat above more relevant contemporary crimes. However, no murderer on the loose is ever safe, nor is the idea of a murderer going unpunished for his crimes remotely just. Toschi must resign from an understanding of time and history as a continuum, always weighing on the present, to something static. Time, in this scenario, becomes directly entangled with the relative need for justice.

When Toschi forces himself to drop the case, Graysmith is there to pick it up. Realizing that the past never goes away, and that danger is ever-possible no matter how removed it is from the present, Graysmith continues the investigation into the Zodiac, not exactly picking up where the detectives left off but rationalizing his own makeshift methods. In seeking the assistance of Toschi and the other policemen previously on the case - Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) and Ken Narlow (Donal Logue) - Graysmith gets a lot of backlash lobbed at his face, and Gyllenhaal conveys the nerdy teenage problem-solver disguised as a bored thirtysomething cartoonist dutifully. Also, as the lone everyman in top billing, Graysmith and his family represent a microcosm of the city's free-floating anxiety and seduction towards the case, itself a microcosm of a post-9/11 America looming with fear at the mere utterance of the word "terrorist" (released six years after the tragedy, the film's contemporary relevance is potent, if not the least bit overstated). In limited screen time, Chloƫ Sevigny as Graysmith's wife Melanie lends conviction and poignancy to the slow decay of familial intimacy brought about by her husband's obsessive-compulsive research.

The personal disruptions caused by the investigation are all the more troubling given the lack of real progress made. Red herrings come to define the narrative's activity: a celebrity lawyer (Brian Cox) connects to the Zodiac via telephone on live television and is predictably abandoned at the meeting they set up, Toschi, Mulanax, and Narlow interview a ridiculously applicable and deliberately doubt-arousing suspect in Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) only to find his fingerprints don't match their records, a letter sent directly to the newspaper office from the alleged Zodiac after a long hiatus from murders is only a hoax, and Graysmith's visit to the house of a droopy, mysterious man matching many of his suspicions turns into a haunting near-kidnapping (at least in Graysmith's mind) that proves meaningless to the case, among many other minor and distracting diversions. Fincher documents the unique texture of analog journalism during the time - conducting interviews, group analysis of printed documents, rummaging through labyrinthine libraries of ancient newspapers and files - as well as the ways in which the many characters cope with the relative tediousness of the process: Toschi grows disenchanted and tired, Graysmith more enthusiastic, and fearful crime reporter Paul Avery (a typically actorly, irritatingly Deppian Robert Downey Jr.) unfailingly resorts to drugs and alcohol (when an airline stewardess designates the last few rows of a plane as smoking rows, it's no surprise when Avery hobbles back). One of the director's greatest strengths is in intimately connecting the various tics of characters to their milieus.

Like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and, to a lesser extent, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button after it, Zodiac evokes a specific time and place with grace and precision, simultaneously rooting its drama in a rigid network of street names, office buildings, and moody nocturnal neighborhoods and its characters in perfectly tailored suits, retro ties, and earth-toned sweaters. The film is leisurely about getting into the thick of the plot, opening with a lovely horizontal tracking shot down on a moonlit suburban panorama animated by fireworks, succinctly capturing the romanticism of July 4th in a small town. Next, it travels to "Lover's Lane," a popular Vallejo makeout spot where a young couple (Lee Norris and Ciara Hughes) lounges in their lustrous sports car. The dim, noirish lighting here is exceptional, lending an ominous sense of foreboding to the scene while preserving strong visual clarity. When the Zodiac arrives to swiftly light them up, the disruption to the small town idyll is harsh and jarring, and it's only then that Zodiac announces its clinical sense of purpose and highlights the concisely developed setting as merely incidental. A scene shortly thereafter where another couple's relaxing picnic is ruined by the Zodiac's presence offers a similar walloping transition from repose to despairing violence and also displays Fincher's tonal proficiency in sunlight as well as streetlight. The script makes it very clear where the third murder occurs, and from then on any utterance or image of the street names becomes a palpable omen.

In its final hour, Zodiac becomes something quite distinct from what its initial setup predicts. Fincher's pacing of the narrative becomes increasingly unpredictable, as momentous scenes that appear to be building to a crescendo recede into cuts that take the narrative one, four, or seven years ahead. The film seems to be insistent upon not providing the audience any dramatic resolution, any feeling that justice has been properly served. Not only does the structure mirror the unsuccessful investigation, it also expresses how the passage of time has come to be malleable in light of such a pile-up of anonymous facts and faulty leads. Fincher is problematizing the idea of definitively knowing anything in this world, of having any grasp on the "truth." Furthermore, it questions the very nature of truth; is it something that must be backed up by conclusive evidence, or can it be supported by mere emotional certainty? If Graysmith's ambiguous final scene, where he stares down Arthur Leigh Allen - his favorite suspect - in the resolutely mundane atmosphere of a hardware store, suggests the latter, then it's a form of truth that receives no observable reward. Allen remains innocent in the eyes of the law, but it's the feeling that Graysmith's correct, that the unpunished Allen is indeed the Zodiac, that provides the film its chilling final punctuation. Beyond that, Zodiac is just thrillingly good narrative filmmaking, maintaining a firm grasp on the specifics of its large ensemble even as they are carried along by a maddening case that takes decades and feels like a lifetime.

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