Reviewed by James Zborowski .
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Zodiac (2007) is not a complete failure, and its faults would be easier to pass over in silence if fewer critics had rushed to praise Emperor Fincher’s ‘mature’ new clothes. Reports of Fincher eschewing the technical intricacy of his previous work have been greatly exaggerated, and what this latest project might be seen to call for highlights what he still lacks: a consistent ability to direct performances.
The movie advertises its ‘based on a true story’ credentials from the outset. It is based on a book written by Robert Graysmith (played in the movie by Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who became obsessed with discovering the identity of ‘the Zodiac’, a Californian serial killer who was never brought to justice. As well as the to-be-expected title cards at the beginning and end of the movie, and welcome prompters of where and when we are in the movie’s sprawling geography and time frame, a further flavour of the factual is provided by the movie’s fascination with documents, files and recordings. One of the most interesting motifs in the movie is hearing the words of the Zodiac’s self-publicizing letters spoken, with various degrees of dead-panness, by other characters.
That the movie manages to dramatize some of the Zodiac’s murders whilst continuing to withhold his identity without such a restraint feeling artificial (at least, for the most part) is one of its not-to-be-overlooked achievements. Another is its success in conveying the sheer quantity of information it has to in a way that is both clear and unlaboured.
If only Fincher had the same gift for conveying information about characters and their relationships. Instead, we get repetitive tics likely to elicit little in the way of involvement beyond an empty chuckle: Robert Downey Jr’s character, Paul Avery, keeps telling Graysmith, his Chronicle co-worker, to stop ‘looming’ over his desk; Mark Ruffalo’s homicide detective, David Toschi, repeatedly asks people for animal crackers to snack on.
When approached by Graysmith about the case, Toschi keeps telling him that he cannot discuss an open investigation, whilst at the same time giving him the names of people he should go and talk to. The sprightly pizzicato on the score accompanying these scenes suggests that the movie is more amused with itself at these points than perhaps it ought to be.
Other scenes which should be pivotal instead seem pointless. Graysmith’s first proper conversation with Toschi (when both have walked out of Dirty Harry , a very different Zodiac movie) and his last with the increasingly dissolute Avery both seem to go nowhere, and end abruptly, establishing little.
Admittedly, this movie is not as stylistically ostentatious as Seven (1995) or Fight Club (1999), but when he comes to direct a sustained scene involving a few characters, Fincher often appears uncomfortable, and reaches for his box of tricks. The necessity of withholding sight of the killer’s face, mentioned already, as well as the factual gaps that a true story inevitably possesses and the dark locations of some of the movie’s action help to justify the movie’s tendency to frequently shy away from clear views of people’s faces, but the decision to present an unfortunate taxi driver’s last fare predominantly as a sustained bird’s-eye view of a yellow cab moving through the night may give us an idea of Fincher’s preferences.
But I do not want to exaggerate. Graysmith and Toschi’s last scene together, a late night/early morning conversation in a café, which takes them, and us, as close to satisfaction about the case as is possible, seems to me to successfully convey a shared understanding between them, and a sense of partial release. Gyllenhaal’s wife Melanie, played by Chloe Sevigny, who does the best she can with what little she is given here, is a vast improvement on the near-equivalent role in Seven. Sevigny/Melanie demonstrates far greater box-avoidance skills than Gwyneth Paltrow’s Tracy.
However, this takes us back to the movie’s weaknesses - indeed, to what may be its central weakness. For a movie that has been described as a portrayal of the effects of a serial killer not on his victims but on those who investigate him, Zodiac takes remarkably little interest in the significant others of its three star characters. Worse still, it takes little interest in those three star characters themselves outside of their involvement in the case. Avery all but disappears from the story when he leaves the Chronicle, and Toschi’s home life gets even less of a look-in than Graysmith’s. For all the plaudits surrounding Fincher’s presentation of his characters here, perhaps they ultimately function for Fincher like the symbols the Zodiac uses in his letters, as ciphers for another type of information.
Sometimes the rhetoric of an argument can take on a life of its own, leading to exaggerated and overreaching claims if the writer is insufficiently scrupulous. I stand by my criticisms of Zodiac itself, but, having conversed with others and thought a little about Seven and Fight Club, both of which are films I admire, I think my proclamations about Fincher’s abilities as a director were excessively dismissive.
In terms of characterization, the crucial difference between Seven and Fight Club on the one hand, and Zodiac on the other, it seems to me, is that the latter’s script is so much weaker. Perhaps it would be closer to the truth to suggest that when Fincher has good raw materials to work with he can create interesting characters, but when those materials are not so good he is less able to compensate.
This review was published on May 21, 2007.