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Fincher Examines Dark Fears in “Zodiac”

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The deep, pervasive sense of fear that blankets the world of David Fincher’s “Zodiac” hangs like a heavy fog over four men – two cops, a journalist and a cartoonist. Of course, the thought of an uncatchable killer loose in greater San Francisco terrorizes many more than just these four, but their lives in particular bear the harshest brunt of the murders.

A painstakingly deliberate film, “Zodiac” tests our patience almost as much as the chilling case that inspired it, an investigation that showed tantalizing promise yet was never resolved. But for those viewers able and willing to stay the course, Fincher’s expertly crafted thriller is a subtle, but always-compelling look into what drives America’s obsession with its darkest denizens.

Based on the true story of a mysterious serial killer who seized the attention of the Bay Area media in the late 1960s and early ’70s with his brutal slayings, the movie takes place over the better part of two decades. Following each subsequent attack, “the Zodiac” – as he identifies himself to the press – sends sadistic, coded letters and ciphers to local newspapers, needling them with his threats of further violence. Two San Francisco Chronicle employees – Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), an eccentric ace reporter, and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a quiet cartoonist with an interest in puzzles – take an active interest in the Zodiac case. The police investigation is headed by two skillful, devoted homicide detectives, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).

Entranced by the case, these four men form the emotional nucleus of the film, and their careers and lives are inextricably tied to a dark obsession with the perplexing case, one full of dead ends and false trails.

Fincher has long been one of Hollywood’s most talented directors, and he already has two modern classics on his filmography – 1995’s “Se7en,” a decadently dark thriller obsessed with the seven deadly sins, and 1999’s “Fight Club,” an uncompromising, disillusioned look at Generation X machismo. Renowned for his innovative camerawork and a flair for arresting visuals, Fincher has slowed as of late. “Zodiac” is only his second film of the decade. It’s been five years since his last effort – 2002’s “Panic Room,” an entertaining film but one that lacked the virtuosity of his earlier work.

For fans of the director’s small, but accomplished oeuvre, “Zodiac” was to be a return to form for the 44-year-old, especially given its topical similarities with “Se7en.” After all, the last Fincher-helmed serial killer movie posterized its villainous John Doe – alongside Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter – as one of the two most recognizable faces for the ’90s serial killer picture, a particularly bloated genre.

But those expecting “Se7en: Part II” will be disappointed, and bitterly so. Fincher has learned from his mistakes with “Panic Room,” a movie that – despite its Hitchcockian undertones – disregarded its characters for a misguided focus on plot and visuals. Perhaps to atone for this, Fincher wisely decided to focus the Zodiac narrative around his four intriguing leads.

His meticulous approach to the Zodiac legend certainly shows. A Feb. 18 New York Times article alleges that Fincher subjected Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo to over 70 takes of certain scenes. Both actors turn in superb performances, making the most of their considerable screen time. Once eager to get the bad guy and full of optimism, their characters are steadily leached of their vitality as the years drag on and on. We can only assume that Fincher’s grueling demands played a part in this.

The most obvious sign of his growth as a director can be seen in the languid, ever so careful movement of Fincher’s camera. Gone are the brassy zooms and tracking shots, replaced by a withdrawn style that fits the time and place of the story being told. Fincher still allows himself the occasional sprinkle of style – most notably a montage sequence where the Zodiac investigators drift through their offices, surrounded by computer-generated pieces of evidence that fill the walls and ceilings, reflecting their obsessed minds not unlike the IKEA-dominated world of Edward Norton’s character in “Fight Club.”

Few directors take the time – or even get a chance – to learn from their mistakes, but Fincher’s work on this picture shows a newfound sense of maturity, a temperance that was almost gleefully absent in the rebellious movies of his filmmaking youth.

According to the movie’s sly, disguised tagline, there’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer. By the end of “Zodiac,” only two of the four men’s resolve still stands, although all four have been irrevocably damaged by their search.

As for Fincher, he makes sure to give us precisely what we’ve been promised, but not much more – leaving us with the troubling thought that the greater purpose remains more obscure than ever.