Cinemalphabet: Z is for Zodiac (2007)
In the late 60s and early 70s, before the internet, a serial killer roamed the streets of San Francisco terrorizing its inhabitants, frustrating law enforcement and enrapturing Hollywood with his (it’s assumed to be a “he” though the identity of the killer remains unknown) bizarre game of cat and mouse via chilling letters sent to law enforcement. Many films have used the convention of serial killers taunting police with verbose manifestos stenciled together with newspaper clippings or written in diabolical handwriting; this string of crimes is said to be the inspiration.
Before they went home empty handed from the 2011 Oscars, Mark Ruffalo and David Fincher, worked on the big budget adaptation of crime novelist Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac. Though in recalling my reading of Graysmith, it seems like they also used some of his subsequent Zodiac books as a part of the adaptation as well. Fincher also did his own extensive research, which definitely serves the film quest for authenticity well, but doesn’t add much to the narrative excitement that audiences have come to expect from thrillers directed by Fincher.
After watching Fincher’s The Social Network, I realize Fincher’s recent obsession to film things as authentically as possible is often what makes his post-Fight Club era stuff so meh to me. What used to make Fincher’s work so irresistible was the shininess – for lack of a more cinematic description – of the worlds he sought to explore. What bored me about The Social Network – a film that shouldn’t have been boring – was not the unlikable characters (who I actually found amusing in a douchy sort of way and enjoyed the performances of the principals beyond what I could imagine!), but the slow, tedious way Fincher sought to explore the least interesting aspects of the story. It’s one thing to be fascinated by the minutiae; it’s another thing to bore the audience with that fascination.
In Zodiac it seems that Fincher mined this gripping story for its most boring aspects and then had them interpreted by great actors (Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr., Ruffalo and Edwards) who tried their hardest to keep the narrative leaks from sinking the boat. And they shouldn’t have to do that; the material easily lends itself to a gripping thriller. However, once again, Fincher’s interest in following the parallels between the two camps with conflicting interest in the case – law enforcement and journalism -was not the particular story audiences are most interested in seeing. By the time the film was released the Zodiac case was so far in the past that many folks might have not realized it was based on a true story, which is why a more straight forward engagement with the source material with emotional interplay tamped down might have been a better avenue of investigation. I also think Black Dahila and Hollywoodland suffered from similar problems.
The performances are sharp, engaging and that does go a long way to making the film not completely unwatchable. Gyllenhaal goes to his smart, Rendition place and doesn’t drain the audience with his usual emoliciousness. Ruffalo, Downey and Edwards are always solid performers, with Downey Jr. seeming to riff a bit on John Lithgow a la The Pelican Brief or even Robards in All the President’s Men.