Friday, March 02, 2007

Film Review: "Zodiac"

Newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) searches for a serial killer in "Zodiac."

Hunting a Killer as the Age of Aquarius Dies

The New York Times
Published: March 2, 2007

David Fincher’s magnificently obsessive new film, “Zodiac,” tracks the story of the serial killer who left dead bodies up and down California in the 1960s and possibly the ’70s, and that of the men who tried to stop him. Set when the Age of Aquarius disappeared into the black hole of the Manson family murders, the film is at once sprawling and tightly constructed, opaque and meticulously detailed. It’s part police procedural, part monster movie, a funereal entertainment that is an unexpected repudiation of Mr. Fincher’s most famous movie, the serial-killer fiction “Seven,” as well as a testament to this cinematic savant’s gifts.

Informed by history and steeped in pulp fiction, “Zodiac” stars a trio of beauties — Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo — all at the top of their performance game and captured in out-of-sight high-definition digital by the cinematographer Harris Savides. Mr. Gyllenhaal is the sneaky star of the show as the real-life cartoonist turned writer Robert Graysmith, though he doesn’t emerge from the wings until fairly late, after the bodies and the investigations have cooled. A silky, seductive Mr. Downey plays Paul Avery, a showboating newspaper reporter who chased the killer in print, while Mr. Ruffalo struts his estimable stuff as Dave Toschi, the San Francisco police detective who taught Steve McQueen how to wear a gun in “Bullitt” and pursued Zodiac close to the ground.

The relative unknown James Vanderbilt wrote the jigsaw-puzzle screenplay, working from Mr. Graysmith’s exhaustive, exhausting true-crime accounts of the murders and their investigations, “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked.” Mr. Graysmith, coyly played by Mr. Gyllenhaal as something of an overgrown Hardy Boy, his great big eyes matched by his great big ambition, was a political cartoonist doodling Nixon noses at The San Francisco Chronicle when Zodiac started sending letters and ciphers to the paper, divulging intimate knowledge of the crimes. The first messages arrived in 1969, the year Zodiac shot one young couple and knifed another in separate Northern California counties before moving on to San Francisco, where he put a bullet in the head of a cabbie.

The first cipher stumped an alphabet soup of law enforcement agencies, including the C.I.A. and F.B.I., but was cracked by a California schoolteacher and his wife. The decoded cipher opened with an ominous and crudely effective flourish: “I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forrest because man is the most dangeroue anamal.” The letters, the misspellings and the lax punctuation kept coming, and perhaps so did the murders, though only five were substantively linked to him. A publicity hound, Zodiac claimed responsibility for murders he might not have committed, a habit that added to a boogeyman mystery and myth that chroniclers of his crimes, including Mr. Graysmith, have exploited.

Mr. Fincher made his name with “Seven,” a thriller in which the grotesquely mutilated bodies of murder victims are nothing more than lovingly designed props. Although more than capable of adding to the exploitation annals, he is up to something profoundly different in this film, which opens with the shooting of two people parked on a lovers’ lane at night, an attack that is soon followed by a squirmingly visceral knife assault on a couple during a daytime idyll. By front-loading the violence, Mr. Fincher instantly makes it clear just what kind of murderer this was — one who liked to get his hands wet — and ensures that the murders don’t become the story’s payoff, our reward for all the time stamps, geographic shifts, narrative complication and frustrated action.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal in Paramount Pictures' Zodiac

The story structure is as intricate as the storytelling is seamless, with multiple time-and-place interludes neatly slotted into two distinct sections. The first largely concerns the murders and the investigations; the second, far shorter one involves Graysmith’s transformation of the murders and the investigations into a narrative. With its nicotine browns, the first section, which opens in 1969 and continues through the mid-’70s, looks as if it had been art-directed by a roomful of chain smokers. Dark and moody, like all of Mr. Fincher’s work, this part has been drained of almost all bright colors, save for splashes of yellow, the color of safety and caution, and an alarming-looking blue elixir called an Aqua Velva that is Graysmith’s bar drink of choice.

The second, more vibrantly hued section begins with Graysmith sitting in the Chronicle newsroom, its yellow pillars now painted blue. He looks as bright and bushy-tailed as the day he read Zodiac’s first letter, though now he comes equipped with three kids and a wife (an unfortunately familiar scold whom ChloĆ« Sevigny imbues with some welcome wit). But there are demons still loose, inside and out, which is why Graysmith takes on Zodiac alone, warming up the stone-cold case. Domestic tranquillity, it seems, can’t hold a candle to work, to the fanatical pursuit of meaning and self-discovery, to finding out what makes you and the world tick — which is why, while “Zodiac” contains multitudes (genres, jokes, nods at 1970s New Hollywood), it feels like Mr. Fincher’s most personal film to date.

Maybe that’s why it doesn’t have the usual movie-made shrink- rapping and beard-stroking, as in Mommy was a castrating shrew and Daddy used a two-by-four as a paddle. Throughout the film Mr. Fincher and company keep focus on Zodiac’s crimes, on the nuts and bolts of his deeds, rather than on the nurture and nature behind them. There is no normalizing psychology here, and no deep-dish symbolism either, maybe because the title crazy is so peculiarly fond of symbols, which he sprinkles in his missives and, for one murder, wears superhero style on a black-hooded costume that makes him look like a portly ninja in a Z-movie quickie. It’s no wonder the victims don’t see the threat behind the masquerade until it’s too late.

Psychology isn’t Mr. Fincher’s bag; he isn’t interested in what lies and writhes beneath, but what is right there: the visible evidence. And what beautiful evidence it is. His polished technique can leave you slack-jawed, as can his scrupulous attention to detail: the peeling walls of a derelict building in “Fight Club,” the rows of ant-size letters marching across the pages of a composition notebook in “Seven,” the bruises splashed across a woman’s arm in “Zodiac.” There is mystery in this minutiae, not just virtuosity, and maybe, to judge from reports of his painstaking process, a touch of madness. Like his detectives and journalists, Mr. Fincher seems possessed by the need to recreate reality — to revisit the scene of the crime — piece by piece.

There’s a moment early in the film when Mr. Downey stands in the Chronicle newsroom, back arched and rear gently hoisted, affecting a posture that calls to mind Gene Kelly done up as a Toulouse-Lautrec jockey in “An American in Paris.” Avery has already started his long slip-slide into boozy oblivion, abetted by toots of coke, but as he strides around the newsroom, motored by talent and self-regard, he is the guy everybody else wants to be or wants to have. Like Mr. Ruffalo’s detective, who leaves everything bobbing in his rapid wake, Mr. Downey fills the screen with life that, by its very nature, is a rebuke to the death drive embodied by the Zodiac killer. Rarely has a film with so much blood on its hands seemed so insistently alive.

“Zodiac” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It contains extremely graphic gun and knife violence, as well as alcohol abuse and cocaine use.


Opens today nationwide.

Directed by David Fincher; written by James Vanderbilt, based on the books “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked” by Robert Graysmith; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by Angus Wall; music by David Shire; production designer, Donald Graham Burt; produced by Mr. Vanderbilt, Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer and Cean Chaffin; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 158 minutes.

WITH: Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector Dave Toschi), Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery), Anthony Edwards (Inspector Bill Armstrong), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), Elias Koteas (Sgt. Jack Mulanax) and Chloƫ Sevigny (Melanie).

1 comment:

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