Monday, May 14, 2007

Zodiac: David Fincher Batters America's Innocence (Again) While Indulging His Love Of All The President's Men


Since David Fincher is the man who delivered Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box at the end of Se7en, an elegy to male violence in Fight Club, and essayed a thrill-ride in paranoia in Panic Room, it’s easy to see Zodiac as a softening of his position.
It’s true, the film is about a serial killer. There are nasty moments in which people die horribly. There are also lengthy bouts of jeopardy, including a Psycho-like scene in which Jake Gyllenhaal visits the house of a suspect and finds himself lured into the basement. In a horror film, it wouldn’t be hard to predict what might happen next. In Zodiac, which aims to unravel the fear, no such prediction can be made, but that doesn’t lessen the claustrophobia, heightened by the sound of footsteps upstairs, the light dimming, and the siren call of a whistling kettle. The fact that Gyllenhaal is as pretty as Bambi, and roughly as tough, does nothing to alleviate the dread.
Zodiac is based on two books by Robert Graysmith about the killer who terrorised the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) was a cartoonist on the San Francisco Chronicle whose initial fascination with the coded symbols used in letters from the killer grew to an obsession. The cartoonist carried on investigating the crime long after police had closed the file, and became an authority on a killer who achieved pop cultural notoriety. The Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry is loosely based on Zodiac, and Harry, the unconventional cop played by Clint Eastwood, was modelled on Dave Toschi, who investigated the real-life case. Toschi is played here by Mark Ruffalo, as a kind of wisecracking Columbo with a fondness for Animal Crackers.
Fincher’s interest in the story is rooted in personal experience. He recalls Zodiac being a playground bogeyman in his San Francisco childhood, and has memories of his father’s reaction to the news that the school bus was being given a police escort. Fincher Senior explained flatly that a killer had sent a letter to the Chronicle threatening to shoot the tyres of the bus, and then kill the children. In the film, Graysmith experiences a similar moment with his child but, unlike Fincher’s father, he removes him from the bus.
As nostalgia, Zodiac is compelling. Lovers of Americana will be kept entertained by Fincher’s digital rendering of 1970s San Francisco, captured with the director’s customary flair, in shots where the camera swoops over the city with the agility of Spider-man. Those dark, rain-washed streets are patrolled by ship-shaped Fords and yellow cabs to a soundtrack of period pop hits. The first murder follows the 4th of July fireworks, with a young couple spotlit by a stranger’s headlights on a lovers’ lane while Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man plays. “Was that your husband?” asks the boy. “No,” says the girl, seconds before the gun pokes through the passenger side window, “it’s nothing.”
Fincher is a master of little feints of misplaced confidence, and the cranking of tension is made easier by the fact that the killer’s face is never seen. The viewer knows, when the action pauses to show a taxi driver listening to a radio discussion of the Zodiac murders, that the man in the back of the cab is about to contribute to the debate, but the how and the when remain the stuff of guilty pleasure. We appreciate the naivety of the woman who pulls over on the highway when the car behind flashes its headlights, but Fincher stretches the moment so taut that the viewer wills a murderous conclusion.
But Zodiac isn’t really a long film about killing. It is about obsession and procedure, a talk opera in which words speak louder than actions. Fincher’s inspiration wears no disguise. The wood-panelled, striplit office of the Chronicle, with its symphony of ringing phones and its editorial conferences in shirtsleeves, and the fervent click-clack of typewriters, and the reluctant double act between the naïve cartoonist and the hardboiled hack Paul Avery (a splendidly boozy turn by Robert Downey Jr), and the conspiracy of cautious officialdom, make it a sequel of sorts to All The President’s Men, in which America’s innocence gets battered again.
More than murder, it is a story about storytelling. Zodiac succeeds because he feeds the media’s hunger for compelling narratives. His murders are accompanied by coded puzzles, designed to illustrate how much smarter he is than his pursuers, and to magnify his importance. Fincher’s film is a riddle, too, offering more clues than answers to a case which remains unsolved. Still, the soundtrack is a help: when Gyllenhaal – the cartoonist as Sherlock - meets the man most likely to have been Zodiac, the radio plays Baker Street.