Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)


Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector David Toschi), Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery). Screenplay by James Vanderbilt. Directed by David Fincher. Rating: 15. Running time: 150 minutes. 

David Fincher is obsessed with obsessions, and now I’m obsessed with him. Fight Club’s Tyler Durden was set on sparking an existentialist revolution and return to primitive manhood. The Social Network‘s Zuckerberg had a pathological drive to make us share more digitally. Zodiac‘s main character, Robert Graysmith, lets the mystery of a serial murderer come to monopolise his mind, and it makes for a film as engrossing as he finds the crimes.

Zodiac is that rare kind of film that gets people in cinemas to quit shovelling popcorn down their throats so they can hear every word of what’s being said, and believe me there’s a lot to listen out for. This is a dialogue-fest that first time ’round you’ll do well to catch three quarters of, but it’s enough to allow you to know you’re watching a masterpiece making a sophisticated story seem relatively simple.

The ‘story’ is true and dates back to the 70s, which we discern from the typewriters, aerialed boxset televisions and Mark Ruffalo’s mad sideburns. And what starts off looking merely like a sexed-up extended 9 o’clock ITV murder mystery, enhanced only by Fincher’s typically sharp visuals (sharp is, somehow, definitely the word), quickly becomes an investigative movie stripped of stereotypes by the removal of any footage of families crying, and few peaks of the perpetrator from the outset. Nor are those devoted to cracking this criminal riddle anything but firmly focused, with an emotionless but endless energy. The film is looking at nothing but them.

They are like Descartes trying to get off the sinking rock in the middle of an ocean of doubt, desperate to build up a land of knowledge and whizzing through inferences, deductions and discoveries at a pace that makes two and a half hours fly by. And yet somehow, this is nothing like any run of the mill, solid investigative thriller. The reason is partially a sense of detachment; the feeling that we’re observing a pure study of method and a passion for a puzzle. It’s also the knowledge that there is just No Way a scene is on the horizon where the killer is caught, the obsession ends and Graysmith punches the air with a self-congratulatory smile. It just ain’t happening. When the story is told as corresponding to the facts, the film is going to fade out, and we’re not going to be made to feel sad or glad because that’s not the fucking point.

The point is that Graysmith can’t live or sleep until his goal is fulfilled. He even preempts the Zuckerberg dash to add to his work (you remember, surely? The skip down the stairs and sprint through the snow, all to add ‘relationship status’ and then make the site go live?) insofar as he similarly literally runs from town to town piecing leads together, trying to work out what is going on here. And it is one hell of a question. If you don’t immediately go to Google the Zodiac murders once the film is over, the reason better be because you don’t have internet. You will frown and drop your jaw as conclusions contradict one another and coincidences get too crazy, and then you’ll go through the same again as you search and see that it’s all true.

In the midst of all this, in spite of omitting all hints of horror from the potentially harrowing handful of death scenes we are made to watch, Fincher still manages to carve a heart-in-mouth, tense-hand moment out of nothing. It’s like he wanted to just make it clear that he could make an infinitely better Jeepers Creepers if he wanted to, but since he has bigger fish he’ll just drop us the perfect proof and move on to some serious frying.

And we oblige, eating all of that fish up instead of our popcorn, in the same year we drank Daniel Plainview’s milkshake and got stunned by Anton Chigurh, not forgetting a spare moment to get justifiably joyful with Juno. What a year 2007 was. As I wrote the other day, in the Kael book I recently read she makes clear that a major reason for her early retirement, Parkinson’s aside, was that she couldn’t sit by as the Age of Movies vanished. If only she lived to see ’07, because to anyone who focuses on New Year’s Eve and insists they just don’t make ’em good any more, I show you David Fincher. There are still people doing exciting things with cinema. That’s the one thing Zodiac can prove.

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