Slight ramble-fest…. apologies – I got way too into this review.
Director: David Fincher
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Cinematography: Harris Savides
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Chloë Sevigny, John Carroll Lynch, Dermot Mulroney, Philip Baker Hall
I’d say Zodiac is undeniably a Fincher movie, but, in equal parts, it’s also a Savides movie – because what Fincher wants to achieve, Savides accomplishes. For all the other films that they’ve worked on, their collaboration on Zodiac is the best pairing I’ve ever seen suited for a singular movie. Savides ‘master of natural 70s aesthetic’ lends his talent to the true crime story of the Zodiac killer, his stylish pragmatism combined with Fincher’s cinematic matter-of-fact-ness births our immersion into the surrealant reality and fear of 1970s San Francisco – balancing lulling fluid camerawork with organic freedom, creating a dreamlike reality together, never giving the audience the chance to get a bearing on where this tragedy may turn to.
A humble man’s obsession to find an elusive notorious serial killer, betrayed by the inadmissibility of damning yet ‘circumstantial’ evidence.
That’s what’s so aggravating about Zodiac, it lays all the information bare: you follow the puzzle, your empathy and self interest merge with Greysmith and co. as the puzzle becomes clearer – yet, always incomplete – we only needed one crucial piece of admissible evidence to line everything together – but, alas, we wander in a reality often full of inconclusive narratives. You know in your heart that Leigh Allen did it – he’s stupid enough to give you all the clues, but he’s smart enough to cover his tracks where it counts – and, objectively speaking, there is technically doubt (but you KNOW he did it).
Savides, Fincher and Greysmith put all the pieces out there, through novel, through film, like a ‘cinematic verite’; dialogue heavy but not drably expositional, Zodiac is the cinematic rendition of a case file – which is why the opening text reads ‘based on real case files’, the ‘case files’ are of crucial importance.
Fincher & Savides’ hauntingly immersive style puts you in the lion’s den with the obsession and murders: inescapable, paralysing. In just two shots the link between visual diegetic perspectives and the non-diegetic objective perspective is established and then continued. The film opens simply: a wide establishing shot of San Francisco, flying smoothly, hundreds of feet in the air – cut to: POV shot in the driver’s seat of the car, driving by the homes and people celebrating in the street on July 4th. The driver pulls up to her lover’s house and they exchange dialogue, always in POV. Immediately we have traditional cinema techniques, merging with POV – the non-diegetic camera becomes the diegetic. And the level of attention to putting you in the 1970’s San Francisco period doesn’t stop with camera subjectivity.
Harris Savides famously sets his scenes by lighting the environment first and introduces his characters last. Beauty isn’t cinematic, his light is, beauty comes from his organic feeling in ‘lived in’ environments, unstrangled by Fincher’s penchant for complete visual clarity – to compensate this Savides fills his shadows with diffused light.
No darkness is truly dark. Savides, determined to create authenticity, never touches true blacks, he emulates the smooth fades and contrasts found in celluloid 70’s thrillers, while also conveying the maximum information possible. More than being akin to the eye, this technique creates dark realities, removing the typically non-human cinematic conventions of thrillers and implementing a more horrifying, immersive likeness to the human eye. Who can argue with the basement scene… the cthonic feeling is palpable, like they drenched the film stock in black swampy oil, the grime and claustrophobia permeates through the screen.
Zodiac may be about obsession and darkness but more importantly, as a cinematic exercise, it compels you through the blend of artifice and deconstructive lifeness. It’s organic and neutral, and subjective, we’re helpless to help, defenseless against the fear, like the people of San Francisco, like the Zodiac’s victims, like Greysmith, Avery, like all the detectives, it’s real, there is nothing to be done, despite how cinema-like the story may be. What’s an audience to do?
I think the primary question becomes: is this entertainment? Or better yet, when does the horror in these real lives become entertainment? Pauline Kael once called Dirty Harry a deeply immoral movie (and I agree, despite the fantastic action – please read Kael’s review since I could never do it justice). And Zodiac brilliantly opposes Dirty Harry in every way: no conclusions, no shootouts, no maverick abandonment of the law, no hyper-macho idolic figures. I’m really trying to get to the point that Zodiac is so anti-cinema that it rises to become pure unconformist cinema (the best kind of cinema, keeps the rules whilst breaking them / understanding and excellently mastering the art, while going against everything conventional about it). The reality of the film is disgusting, so what do we watch it? I could justify watching Dirty Harry, it is immoral but is too scintillating, clearly fictional – but that’s why I justify Zodiac, for the lack of entertainment, for the fusion of grueling, obsessive, creatively haunting art — yes, this is a pander piece, you got me (I love this movie). I deny calling Zodiac entertainment, despite Downey Jr’s comedic presence. There’s so much here that will bore an uninterested viewer, and that’s ok because when the film finds its audience, they’ll have something worth so much more than any mass-consumable, throwaway pander-pic.
So, ‘Final Notes’: I love the lack of definite meaning for the symbol of the Zodiac, or the motivations. I love the hints of colour. I love the paranoia in the basement scene. I love the humble performance of Gyllenhaal. (not so in love with Ruffalo’s breathy accent- please stop). I love the little character interactions, the way characters’ lives play out in the background of the main characters – especially the wife and his children that grow up and leave home with little to no screentime – their minimal screentime demonstrate where the Greysmith’s priorities lie, the screen and narrative literally become a demonstration of the character’s mindset, the focus of the obsession overrides the traditional family drama narrative. I may just make a list one day and go crazy since it’s likely to reach infinity. I know I generally tend to maintain an objective, quite distanced approach to reviewing movies, and that’s not changing any time soon, but for films as exceptional as this, I can fanboy towards the end every once in awhile. Please, don’t let my excitement go wasted: if you haven’t seen Zodiac, watch it, and if you have, watch it again, I promise it will still have something more to offer you, it always does.
Greysmith’s infectious obsession will have you wanting to know whodunnit… and what evidence you’re willing to admit.