Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Zodiac (2007) - David Fincher

Well here we are at the start of a new year, and what better way to kick off another 365 days of film watching than this? Having read both of Robert Graysmith's books about the Zodiac killings, I was more than a little wary when a big Hollywood version was announced. Once it became clear that David Fincher was attached as director, I thought perhaps things could pan out okay. After all Fincher is known for being quite meticulous with his subject matter, plus having Se7en under his belt meant he'd be more than able to handle such murky subject matter. Except of course Se7en was fiction, and this is very much at the opposite end of the scale (um so factual then). In a way what worried me most about having someone like Fincher at the helm of this film, was the fact that he's first and foremost a visualist, not all that surprising when you consider that his background is that of the dreaded pop promo. All of his films have little moments of incredibly cool camera moves and the neatest of images, the sort of pictures that stick with you long after the actual story has faded. Which is all well and good, but is this who you want to make a film about a subject as horrific and serious as the Zodiac killer? The sad thing is I thought about that question over the course of the year (not non stop obviously) that this film was in production, weighing up in my mind the pros and cons, thinking of other directors who might do it more justice. I'm still unsure of who could have done a better job. Ken Loach perhaps? You think I'm joking?

The Zodiac story isn't an easy one to condense into a film, taking place as it does over a ten year period, with huge gaps of inactivity. There are red herrings galore, theory upon theory, false leads, fake letters and conflicting eye witness accounts. In short, a screenwriters nightmare. For a start there was never going to be a happy ending, since the Zodiac was never caught, and no one can really explain why the killings ended, or if they even did. It reminds me of that other great mysterious serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Both needed to vent some spleen via the inkies, neither were caught and the ever morbid general public still have a huge fascination with them.

Anyway the good news is that for the most part Fincher was able to reign in his flashier side, and delivers a heavy dark brooding depressing sprawling tangle of a film. For some reason best known to the director we hop over the first actual Zodiac killing and kick the film off with the second set of murders, then in rapid succession we witness the third and fourth of the (official) Zodiac killings. Fincher is quite clever in the way he gives us everything upfront, and then dumps us with Dave Toschi, (the main detective to work on the Zodiac case) and Graysmith (the author on whose books the film is based) to sort out what we have just seen. In that way the film unfolds in linear fashion just as it would have for anyone following the case in the news at the time. This does make Zodiac a little lopsided, since it settles down after the initial murders into a police procedural, and becomes a bit of a dull affair really. Which is one of the things I think really works, since you really get to understand just how tangled the whole Zodiac story was and just how laborious it was to unravel.

It feels like Fincher is pretty much able to pick and choose who he works with, so the cast on this film is top notch. I've never really had much time for Jake Gyllenhaal, but he really shines as Graysmith, likewise with Mark Ruffalo as Toschi. The cast are rock solid, even Brian Cox (THE Hannibal Lecktor) turns up in a tiny role. Obviously no one doubts Fincher's ability to make everything look good. So its interesting just how restrained he is, there's nothing too crazy. There is a nice time lapse shot of a San Francisco landmark being built, but nothing too over the top. In fact it feels like his most mature to date film by a long way.

All right so that's the good stuff, now for the bad - it's only really one thing, but it's a biggie. Shootings shown in slow motion, soundtracked by pop music. Not good. Violence in a film such as this (fact based), should be shown with as much realism as possible. Bloody, uncomfortable and horrific. That's how he deals with the Lake Berryessa murders (the second we see in the film). You don't want people to walk out of the cinema talking about how cool the shootings were, do you? Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt, stick to Graysmith's theories and findings, taking a few liberties along the way, such as making Graysmith and Paul Avery (a top form Robert Downey Jr.) sparing partners. But that's films for you. Personally I'd recommend the two Graysmith books on Zodiac more than the film, but they'd take a couple of months of your life to read, whereas this film is a smidgen over 160 minutes. So it's a question of time I guess. That and whether you feel the need to emerse yourself in the world of horror that is waiting within those pages.

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