Zodiac

It isn’t so essential what David Fincher brings to Zodiac as what he omits. What he leaves at home is movie-ness, the way the plot transpires in a normal movie about heroes taking down bad guys (as in Seven, for instance, a technically proficient example of a simpler concept). He ignores the way scenes transpire in this genre, the way time passes, the way that a good guy’s special skills are supposed to eviscerate a bad guy’s fatal flaws (or the reverse). Zodiac is so methodical that you feel like you’re going down into those basements yourself, rooting through decades-old eyewitness accounts and scribbling down puzzle pieces. Even as you think a character might lean onto an archetype, they remain unreliable, suspicious, and flawed. Zodiac is non-fiction that assesses its material without judging it. It isn’t sensational or moving but like the best truths it’s hard to put down. No film has ever earned “Based on True Events” quite so much.

There’s a non-fluidity in the way these characters interact, or choose not to, that enhances the detachment real people have for each other that movie people are often denied. Most people in a movie meet everyone else in the movie. In Zodiac, there are cliques and quiet people and people who have nothing to do with the plot. You might wait for brusque reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) to stop drinking and figure things out, but he disappears. Downey Jr. is so essential to this role because he’s the kind of guy you want to be a hero, but whom you believe would be put out by it. You start to believe more in your desire to see him do good than in your belief that he’ll do it. Fincher has an eye in Zodiac to pick celebrities that would play real people, rather than themselves. You might think that cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is going to unite the reporters and the cops and drum up this serial murder investigation into a spunky chess game. But Gyllenhaal plays him like he’s part of this plot in his off-time, until he can’t help but let the movie consume him. And that takes years. He’s undervalued at the San Francisco Chronicle, a Clark Kent among super-reporters. Once you know that he studies ciphers and loves puzzles, the movie seems laid out. But this is the real world. Quiet people get ignored.

Graysmith will be thinking about it on the scale of a real person’s life rather than of a movie (the show 24 comes to mind, as the perfect counterexample of all this life stuff compressed into a digestible plot fragment). The people in Zodiac have themselves become notes in a case file, reappearing only at events that add significance to the mystery. This could have made the film nothing more than a string of bullet points, but even though the film seems to be guided by the important events, the script never stops being about the important thoughts that people have about them. Zodiac really isn’t about a string of murders, many of which we don’t see (if there were no surviving witnesses, Fincher chose not to fabricate the event). It’s about facts, about reporters and cops getting lost in the sheer weight of them all, and about the filmmakers who couldn’t let it happen to them too.

It’s amazing how Zodiac works, how it never gets stodgy reviewing all these files or summarizing all the evidence possibly linked to the Zodiac Killer, an infamous serial murderer police are pretty sure killed five people and may have killed more. How would we know? There’s a big difference between suspicion and proof, and if Zodiac can’t prove something, it betrays its upbringing as a cop movie and leaves us hanging. Many times, Zodiac will seem to reveal the killer to us and then back down. Despite the fact that the film features Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the by-the-book investigator that inspired Dirty Harry and Bullit and even a certain place to get power convertors on Tatooine, there are no shootouts or car chases in Zodiac. Ruffalo as Toschi needs to be singled out: he knew not to play a guy who gets tough when he has to, but a guy whose toughness can’t be turned off. This version of Toschi, unlike his (un)romanticization as Dirty Harry, is toughest on himself. It takes the hero out of him. When Ruffalo said he wasn’t interested in the part, he became perfect for it. When the real Toschi saw the movie, he said Ruffalo did “a good job.”

The real Toschi gave them access to his detective’s memory for details: who was standing where, what they were wearing, on what day—he may be Fincher’s secret weapon. Graysmith is obsessed with the killer even after Toschi gives up and you feel the weight of his mortality. A particular scene in a suspicious man’s basement makes the nosy young dad seem so vulnerable it turns into a horror movie. The fear is announced by a simple detail (“Not many people have basements in San Francisco”) of which it’s our job to remember how it relates to the case. Zodiac turns us into investigators and obsessives. Music could have keyed us in to feel creeped out or calm, to rise with tension and crash at a false scare, but Fincher backs off; he lets us poach in our own suspicions. He lets the reality do the talking.

I believe the secret to the powerful compulsion of watching Zodiac must be in the editing of its exposition. If there’s one thing to know about David Fincher it’s that he loves exposition. Directors aren’t even supposed to love it: it is, after all, how a cheap scene weasels its way out of being interesting while remaining important. A thousand bargain-bin movies have scenes with two characters discussing the plot at a bar counter or diner, and they have them for lack of alternatives. Fincher selects these scenes as his art, and that’s why Zodiac becomes his muse. It’s a story not about things that happen, but about what we know about them. They were made for each other.

Take the scene where Toschi and Graysmith hash out new angles to the case in the booth of a diner. The flat view of them on the side is tense, looking up. At eye-level, we learn the facts with them in the shot-reverse-shot structure of one person's face, then another, that so many movies have used when they don't know what else to do. Fincher weaponizes it. We're already so tense; he doesn't even always show the person who's talking because sometimes the reaction of the listener is even more important. His camera is, as usual, perfect (this is not a value judgment, but a description of how he keeps it level and fixed, with almost computer-operated precision). Its perfection implies a kind of pre-destiny, like he’s keeping a modern record of the space and time of something that's already happened.

Fincher doesn’t have to be fanciful to glorify himself: he keeps the camera still as though he knows that the real world looks as still and suspicious; his lack of indulgence is his form of indulgence. He never stimulates the audience with handheld action (there’s only one handheld shot in the entire film, by my count). He lets the CGI – of which there’s a lot in Zodiac – to literally fade into the background, to build his period unannounced where others might have used it as a stand-in for drama. The purity of his view threatens to make all of his films fatalistic, as though the terrible things that happen in his movies have already happened and are doomed to happen. This works the best in Zodiac, where the detachment is accurate and the story, like his camera, is omniscient in the reality it depicts. These facts imply not only what happens but what must happen. His camera does this too, and the effect is consciously ominous.

Fincher may come off as impersonal. He leaves out huge components of filmmaking that are usually ground up and served as the combo platter of views that modern blockbusters enjoy. But he doesn’t give us handheld views on purpose: he gives us perfect documentative ones to remind us that no one feels like they're in on the action of their lives, even when they are. In the end, in Fincher’s universe, we’re all just observers. That’s not to say his view is sterile: on the contrary, he manages to make our hum-drum existence seem dynamic without changing it. Other directors let exposition squeeze out only when unavoidable: Fincher propounds it into a symphony. He himself said in an interview, “They know you can do anything. The question is: what don’t you do?” By calling Zodiac his best film, I’m also naming it the one in which he doesn’t do something most often. He compiles its material while not assessing it. Instead, he uses it to assess the reality in which it takes place.

A decades-long odyssey of mystery and brow-rubbing and drinking boils down to a clean, fixed shot of two men looking at each other. It is in a moment the total uncanny power of which the rest of Fincher’s work is a piece. Zodiac requires two hours and thirty-seven minutes to get us there but that’s all it requires. Any director, like a good beat cop who’s served his time to the point of exhaustion, could retire after that.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

David Fincher

James Vanderbilt (screenplay)

Robert Graysmith (book)

Robert Graysmith Jake Gyllenhaal
Paul Avery Robert Downey Jr.
Dave Toschi Mark Ruffalo
Bill Armstrong Anthony Edwards
Melanie Graysmith Chloë Sevigny
Melvin Belli Brian Cox
Arthur Leigh Allen John Carroll Lynch

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