Monday, September 8, 2014

David Fincher Retrospective: Zodiac (2007)

Director: David Fincher
Starring: we go, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, June Diane Raphael, Brian Cox, Ione Skye, John Carroll Lynch, John Terry, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, Zach Grenier, Elias Koteas, Adam Goldberg, James LeGros, Clea DuVall, Paul Schulze
Rated: R

Methinks our friend's a tad bit fuckered in the head.
                ~Paul Avery

Following the Panic Room, it wouldn't be for another five years that we saw a film from director David Fincher.  He was planning to follow up his 2002 thriller with the film The Black Dahlia that was based around the murder of Elizabeth Short.  Fincher wanted to make an $80 million budgeted five hour mini-series with big name movie stars attached.  Mark Wahlberg signed on, but then, due to a scheduling conflict, had to leave to film The Italian Job.  The studios balked at Fincher's grand idea, ultimately parting ways with the director.  They replaced him with Brian DePalma and that finished project came, was panned by critics, and we really haven't discussed it much since. 
Fincher then went from one unsolved California murder case to the next.  When it came to telling the story of the Zodiac killer, David Fincher was the ideal candidate as he had made more than good on the film Seven.  However, the rights holders just kind of offered him it as a shot in the dark, just waiting for him to pass on it so they could move on and realize their dream director was not an option.  Instead, Fincher took them right up on the idea as the Zodiac murders had directly affected him in his childhood.  He thought of the Zodiac killer as the real deal boogeyman.  During his childhood in northern California he lived in fear of watching about it on the news and taking the school bus.  
Taking on the film just wasn't enough for this master craftsman.  If he was going to do this film, on an unsolved case, he was going to make sure he got things as accurately as he could present them.  Fincher and the writers spent a year and a half preparing this screenplay.  They revisited all the old police reports for the case.  Interviews with survivors, policeman, detectives, witness were all conducted once again to pull together facts.  There was a precedent set as well, if interview information seemed a little off, screwy or people's testimonies contracted one another, they would always then go by what the police report said.  After all, it'd be almost 30 some years for these people.  And the police reports were deemed the most solid, consistent and accurate source of information for this film.
The film is also carefully directed with a devotion to its accuracy as well.  If an event or happenstance took place but there were no witnesses to the account, it does not appear in the movie.  Hence, the film begins with the second Zodiac murders and not the first.  Of the horrific events we do see in the film, the scenes are presented with the utmost respect and accuracy according to its victims.  When there are run ins with the Zodiac killer, they are filmed only based on what was witnessed and the view of the witnesses during the crime.  With many directors, there would be the urge to film the murders with angle cuts, intense score, amplified sound effects and intense camera movements.  Fincher restrains.  His depiction of the murders are just kind of flat and blunt and basic.  By doing this, it becomes more terrifying by looking sort of real (almost as if it was shot on a camera sitting on a tripod) and as actual tragedies capture in a movie.  The murders come across very cold which is pretty haunting.  The scene in which the Zodiac stabs two victims has always got to me for how "matter of fact" he steps in and knifes them in the back.  No passion, just kills.  And that's sort of scary to see in a film.
To tell the story of the Zodiac case, Fincher assembles a massive cast of people.  Primarily we have the story told through Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo who play Robert Graysmith, Paul Avery and Inspector David Toschi.  Each man is pushed to the limits on the Zodiac case and spend a good chunk of their lives obsessing over it.  In Avery's case, it seemed to wind up ruining him.  Robert Downey Jr brings his great energy and humor that he's always had (yes, he was one of the greatest BEFORE Iron Man folks) to his role as crime reporter Paul Avery.  He and Gyllenhaal play off of each other quite well.  Gyllenhaal, I suppose is the star here.  His story might be the most movie-like one that's fun to follow as it always revolves around solving puzzles and putting together the mystery in a horror-thriller kind of vibe.  Plus, he also gets the great sequence when he visits the projectionist guy's house and thinks he may possible be in the presence of the Zodiac himself (I remember hearing a ton of gasps during this part at the Arclight Hollywood opening weekend).  Plenty of notable character actors fill in other parts of this rather impressive all star cast that colorizes this film.
One of the more bold things this movie has is that the mystery at the forefront of the story is unsolved.  But what's brilliant about this is that the film has provided you with facts, evidence, testimonies, police investigations, you name it through the runtime that allows you to sort of form the opinion yourself.  A fantastic conversation starter to go home on.  While the film does seem to point strongly in the direction of Arthur Leigh Allen being the Zodiac, its only because the police evidence and case files seemed to strongly suggest.  They're not pointing the finger, they're also not trying to build a case against the man, its just that the information presenting leans pretty heavily toward that suspect.  So as to not bluntly point to a suspect, many different people played the Zodiac as according to how he fit a testimony and to display confusion and how uncertain things in this case could be. To show how the facts could be all there except this one "but" that would hold something out of force them to look in other directions.  And the crazy thing is, we'll probably never know the truth of this case, only that we know the events and tragedy, but not the method to the madness or who was delegating it.
When I saw Zodiac in 2007, I was pretty much floored.  It felt like something I had never seen before.  The film could have gone all cinematic with its telling, but instead, it knew the subject matter was strong enough, so it became about getting events and conversations accurate instead of making them more exciting.  And I don't mean that the film wasn't exciting, because it was on its own right, and that's what's impressive.  They didn't use tricks or try to change things to force the excitement.  I loved all the 60s/70s styles and hair as well.  They also threw in the premiere of Dirty Harry, too (That film was based on the Zodiac killer).  Then I got to work on the QC for the Blu-ray edition when I worked in Burbank and my love for it grew fonder.  It's one of my absolute favorite films from the last decade.  A film that's really unique and works so well as entertainment and biopic to boot.  I didn't live during this time, but I imagine Fincher was able to recapture a lot of the vibe and feeling of the time that these events were happening.  If you have the 2 disc Blu-ray, you're in for a treat too, as the bonus features are perfect.  You have a set of feature length interviews covering the case itself with those still living giving testimony about it and then you have a feature length set of interviews and behind the scenes of adapting it all and making it a movie.  7 years later, I'm remain just as fascinated with the film Zodiac as I was on opening weekend.

NEXT TIME:  Sigh...maybe second time is a charm?

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