The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Zodiac

Written by Kevin Pearson.

Photo from the article With Zodiac, Fincher has made the detective film relevant and has distanced himself from the limitations of his past films. Fight Club (1999) consisted of intricate shots that were surrounded by special effects. Zodiac, on the other hand, has a simple, methodical approach to its scenes and storytelling that aims for a clinical, detached tone: realism carries the story. While Zodiac is an excellent work, however, the hype should be contained. The filmmaking shows little of what we should expect from Fincher in the future. It should simply indicate the restraint Fincher is capable of, and his new inspiration to make character-oriented films.

Zodiac is a unique project for any accomplished director. Most prominent auteurs have some identity of style, but all would be forced to follow the lead of a story like the one in Zodiac. It is an investigation film that is dense with details, and the characterization is tied tightly in the midst of those details. There is little room for Fincher’s style to exist. A comparable film is All the President’s Men (1976). It was also a tense thriller that had larger ramifications in its story, and Fincher’s filmmaking is comparable to the work in that film: certain stylized touches are distinguishable, but the depth comes from a basic dedication to dramatically heighten scenes.


Those who are critical of the film have caught on to that idea. If this film was not about the darker side of life, they say, it could easily be seen as a director-for-hire gig for Fincher (see, however, my concluding note...), since his films have always shown a self-conscious flair for style. The fact that Fincher is able to tell a simple story is less an accomplishment than it is a sign that he has different possible rhythms to his style. There is more filmmaking depth here than in any of his other films: his past styles, while sometimes stylistically appropriate for the subject, did little to help the stories. The hyped style of Fight Club, for example, suggested a decadent world, but didn’t suggest schizophrenia, and that angle was the deepest vein in the story. The film needed appropriate filmmaking to heighten it; Fincher didn’t take the next step to show it, so the film came off as intense but without depth. The reasons Zodiac succeeds are based on the depths of the screenplay and the acting, and the pared down filmmaking is simply a perfect marriage of form and content.

Zodiac looks like it is a transitional work for Fincher. In a recent interview, he talked about how he approached directing this film differently: instead of a hundred meticulous storyboards, he approached every day with fewer plans about how to shoot, and focused more on working with the actors. The effort became more collaborative and as shooting went on longer, so did the number of takes per scene. Fincher began playing with every scene to dig at nuance. His maturation was that he wanted to shoot to better capture performances. This approach displays the basics of filmmaking necessary for character-oriented films: instead of focusing on intricate shot ideas, he is shooting for the essence of every scene.


Its worth considering the maturation of a past great filmmaker here. By the 1960s, Akira Kurosawa had already defined what many would be happy to call a career. His filmmaking (primarily his editing) was revolutionary. Then, beginning with a simple crime film, High and Low (1963), he began to change. He deferred his former editing schemes to film scenes that achieved simpler heights. Later, showing reverence for Andrei Tarkovsky, he was a filmmaker who tried to reach the heights of transcendence, and later masterworks like Ran (1985) could never have been possible if Kurosawa didn’t evolve in this way.It shouldn’t be assumed that Fincher is on his way to become Kurosawa, but both filmmakers have telling similarities. Both High and Low and Zodiac are simple works for both directors, but both are transcending works for their genre.

When Kurosawa made High and Low, he was making a realist version of a noir film. He was not subscribing to the romanticism that defined the genre in the 1940s: it subscribed to the realism of a police investigation and had a less than romantic ending. I do not know if real police detectives ever felt indebted to Kurosawa’s portrayal of police work, but I certainly doubt they had much belief in the Hollywood image of it. The press around Zodiac suggests that Fincher has made a wholly accurate film. Crime writers like James Ellroy have already said the film is dead on and ends a long period of filmmakers making movies about serial killers and police investigations that really had no clue. Ellroy endorses Fincher’s former efforts too, but I take exception to that, and I think Fincher may now as well. Seven (1996) is well done, but making a film like Zodiac on the same subject could be the only way Fincher was able to get past the mould he cast himself into with the public. David Fincher may have given the world one of the best commentaries on serial killer films and also could have given his final comment on the subject. It could be assuming too much to point out that that one of Kurosawa’s first successful films was an awkward but honest crime movie, Stray Dog (1949); after he made High and Low nearly twenty years later, he never touched the genre again.


The next film for David Fincher is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Unlike anything he has done before, it is a romantic epic about a man who grows young while everyone around him grows old. Fincher is acknowledging it will touch sentimentalities he has never done before. It will also continue his filmmaking strategy of Zodiac. It has a shooting schedule of over 110 days (like Zodiac did) and the interest lies in the character over the style.

Do not expect him to entirely strip away the style though. As I said before, Zodiac was a unique story that required a unique dedication. Even here Fincher is able to throw in a few jabs that took him back: one instance is the quick history of a building being raised. The simple purpose was to show the passage of time, and - while another filmmaker would have likely found a different (and more economically sound) idea way of conveying this - Fincher still could not help himself, and used a technically impressive camera trick. The fantastic story of Benjamin Button will likely give him ample excuse to continue with such an approach. The question is whether Fincher will be able to merge his older style to more authentic character portraits.

Note:

For a film that could look like a director-for-hire gig, Fincher is still deft with one detail of filmmaking that was always outstanding in his previous films: production. Seven was so good in its look and feel that it began a stylistic trend for a lot of bad imitation films. It is arguable that the best part about Fight Club is the craftsmanship in painting a background that meshes underground fight scenes with corporate seediness so well. This meticulous attention to detail in production is one aspect of Fincher’s filmmaking style that seems alive in this film. The opening shot, a stagnant camera shooting from a moving car, shows a few blocks of a residential neighbourhood during 1960s Halloween. There doesn’t seem to be one detail that doesn’t perfectly recreate the period. The scene is just a set up for a film of perfect, meticulous detail in which one forgets that one is watching an attempt to recreate a previous decade. Zodiac rivals the imagination of production that went into Seven: Zodiac for its ability to recreate a 60s/70s realism and Seven for its gothic cityscape.

...Read here our, more critical, alternate Alternate Take of Zodiac.

This Alternate Take was published on March 18, 2007.

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