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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Zodiac (2007, ****)

AS Zodiac BEGINS, FOURTH OF JULY FIREWORKS BURST over San Francisco Bay in an aerial shot suffused with the soft dark of California night; the shot holds for a moment before descending to earth, traveling along a suburban street of elevated banality in the style of photographer William Eggleston, while exploding flowers of skyrockets loom with quiet bursts between ordinary homes. An ideal night to fire a gun and not be heard.
DAVID FINCHER RECREATES WITH RAPACIOUS PRECISION a season of fear in the San Francisco that began when he was 7 years old, a mere second grader. As a grown man, the Z-04483.tifmovie he has painstakingly fashioned answers the child’s questions, What does father do when he is away at work or at war? He grows weary. He grows impatient. He grows old. I cannot tell you if Zodiac, following the footsteps of the men who shadowed one of the most notorious of unsolved cases, is a great film, but it seems to be a perfect one. It is a thrill and a privilege to witness a work of art like this. Drawing on the estimable forebears of 1970s cinema, such as Coppola’s The Conversation, Pakula’s All the President’s Men and much of Lumet, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt observe the routines of several newspapermen and detectives as they hope to solve a series of killings by a man who eventually calls himself the Zodiac killer and who sends taunting, partially-encoded letters to the press. Fincher recreates the late 1960s and early 1970s with anti-storybook precision.

Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards play the key detectives. The editorial cartoonist played by Jake Gyllenhaal shadows a dissolute San Francisco Chronicle reporter played by Robert Downey, Jr. Victims, survivors, other cops, other figures appear. The characters rise and fall like supporting players. There is no leading man, no hero, no antihero, no savior, and evil is not vanquished. The men who are defined by the work know no clarity and find no rest. The acting is stellar in every nuance, an aspect that cannot be understated. The use of high definition video to shoot the movie, instead of film, made production faster and more takes possible. To cite only the example of the always-indelible John Carroll Lynch, who plays a suspect, and who has two fairly long shots in two different scenes where he stares back at other characters staring at him, there are things that flicker across his face that are haunting, damning, human, vulnerable and more than a little epic.
Fincher suggests the grind of work, fruitless work. Men who inhale white-bread sandwiches in between lungfuls of surmise spoken aloud, always at length, nutrition gulped between gasps of human intuition. This is something apart from the reductive psychology to which Hollywood traditionally subjects these kinds of stories. The narrative of the many characters’ frustrations at the elusive object is also a vehicle beyond plot for Fincher to convey dread. The soundtrack is exceptionally sophisticated, combining stylized sound design by Fincher’s colleague since high school, zodiackery_0434678.jpgRen Klyce with an ominous score by David Shire (The Conversation, All the President’s Men), which draws literally from the twelve-tone musical score. [Shire describes in detail in the press kit [PDF download].] But it is the musique concret-style score that brands the brain. The sounds of footfalls and floorboard creaks, close, and far, a city’s sirens and backfires. Dogs bay. Sirens howl like hounds. Trucks grind gears. Tires peel and squall. Busses struggle and whoosh. The shards of sound escalate across the years. It is enough to drive you mad, or to empathize innately with the static inside the minds of the searchers on screen.
Late, there’s a burger shared between policeman Ruffalo and now research-mad Gyllenhaal that resembles the diner meeting between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s Heat, but there is an extra turn: Gyllenhaal’s stand and pace as he elaborates, reminiscent of a prosecuting attorney making his case to a jury of one. Mann is more steeped in masculine posturing and self-pity, zodiac_97603.jpgbut he and Fincher are both controlling. At the risk of neologism, rather than apply the disdainful “perfectionist” to them, I’d call them “precisionists,” artists who in every last film gesture for an equivalence to the literary le mot juste. (A savage instant: we hear the cutting of a key in the background while a suspect and an investigator trade looks in a hardware store. It could as well be saw on bone.)
Zodiac is understated, with only a few bursts of the extravagant side of Fincher’s imagination, such as the Transamerica tower rising to a fog-scoured sky in a thrilling Koyaanisqatsi-style special effects sequence. The city’s ascent suggests the layers of history, the bedrock of architectural and cultural advance (the killings being an Altamont-like signpost of the end of the “age of Aquarius”).
Objects hold power. They way Downey scoots an office chair across the Chron newsroom sings who this newspaperman was (as does the way he fixes an orange #2 Eagle pencil into the spiral of a reporter’s pad, the smallest gesture captured with Gene Kelly-style elan). The cars are an eyeful as well, and these are surely, considering the scads of research done, the cars the characters drove, but Fincher has a way of shooting a period car parked on the street, in medium or distant shot, that matches the style of a pioneering photographer of the quotidian, Stephen Shore: the feigned offhand, the created momentousness of nothing at all. (There is a lingering moment after the first killing when the driver’s-side turn signal of a Corvair continues to Tick. Tick. afterwards.) While damping the ample opportunities to dress the characters in the worst of 1970s fashion, Fincher resists, yet there is one amusing long shot where Elias Koteas’ cop is summoned to open a door, and he approaches the front of the frame in taupe poly Sansabelt slacks boasting a firm outline the length of his cock. Ah, the history of ages past.
Each of the characters hoards information like a squirrel and winter still comes, cold, unforgiving, people age, witnesses forget, times change. They suffer the conceited belief that the more we know, the closer we are to knowing Truth, the single fact that shall set us free.

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