Dear Editor, this is the Zodiac speaking.

When I sing someone’s praises, which I’m often too quick to do, I feel obliged to check up on them.  Well, I’ve sung director David Fincher’s praises a couple of times and had the opportunity to see another of his movies, Zodiac (2007).  Fincher’s a tough director, for me, because he doesn’t keep to a single genre or tone.  He’s also without pretense.  Some directors *cough**De Palma**cough* have priorities other than telling a story.  “Making a movie” means something else entirely.  Fincher uses his talents to tell the story.  That’s my kind of guy.

In 1969, a man shot two people, killing one.  He sent letters to the press and police soon after, calling himself the Zodiac.  The letter claimed he had killed others and gave details only known to the police.  The letter, and those that followed, sparked a very public manhunt that would last 35 years and was never really solved.  The main protagonists in the movie include members of the police and the San Francisco Chronicle.  The lead detectives in San Francisco are Inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), Toschi becoming especially involved.  On the Chronicle, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) works the crime beat and, when threatened by Zodiac himself, begins to slowly lose himself.  Also, there is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the Chronicle‘s cartoonist and a puzzle fan, who takes so great an interest in the case that it costs his marriage.  Suspects come and go, evidence seems to stick and then falls through, and interest waxes and wanes.

I recall thinking the preview was quite bad.  When a preview says “based on a true story” I’m immediately turned off.  It’s too easy to be lazy.  I felt the same when the Summer of Sam (1999) preview came out.  Fincher apparently commented on the marketing implying that it was sold as a slasher movie to 16 year old boys when it’s actually a thriller in the vein of All the President’s Men (1976), a conscious influence.  Thereby, it disappoints those who see it and warns off those who would have enjoyed it.  Such an obviously flawed strategy that we see time and time again.

All the actors are great.  We’re used to a quick and witty Robert Downy Jr., but I never stop enjoying it.  That’s definitely the character here; a flawed, self-absorbed, and funny guy.  It’s great.  For Gyllenhaal, I kept thinking that he (Graysmith) was going to come under suspicion as the killer (“Bobby, you almost look disappointed”).  I’m pretty sure that was unintended, but I definitely got that impression.  In reality, he’s just a character obsessed with figuring out the case, he just wants to know, and when the story shifts to his perspective, that is well communicated.  Ruffalo, as the exhausted cop, plays a straight (flawless) character who is also preoccupied with the case (but he doesn’t take it home with him, so I don’t think you can call him obsessed).

Apparently, Fincher is an exacting director who will do as many takes as necessary to get the scene right.  That can be as many as 76 takes.  This movie isn’t cut-cut-cut-cut-cut, so imagine doing a five minute conversation that many times.  Some (probably most) of the actors found this frustrating.  That’s understandable.  But, really, this kind of director is their savior.  I’ve seen a number of movies where a favorite actor of mine puts in a mediocre performance.  I think, “What’s going on here?”  Actors don’t always nail it the first time, let alone getting all the actors in the scene to all simultaneously nail it in one take.

I see it as a kind of social contract where everyone involved (and their careers) is protected by the benevolent dictator.  No individual is judged more for what happens on screen than an actor.  How many scenes does a director of photography need to justify a “great cinematography” observation from a critic? But an actor is judged every scene for how they are delivering the lines, reacting to others, and looking genuine.  Whatever the Method people may suggest, that all happens between Action and Cut.  I’d much rather be an actor in Fincher’s hands.

And it comes through.  I haven’t watched Alien³ (1992) yet, but in none of his movies did he just flubb the acting or editing.  That makes him can’t-miss in my book.  As long as he has an eye for an interesting story and how a scene comes together, he’ll be making great movies.  There aren’t that many directors to match him there and all the names that I do think of are of this generation of film directors.

There’s a complicated balance to the movie with a lot of shared perspectives, all of it based on the facts of the case.  The mystery is well structured.  It goes for two and a half hours and the characters are represented in that proportion.  The writer, James Vanderbilt, has done a pretty terrific job there and in the dialogue.  It is long, but when I realized it, I was only thinking “I hope this keeps going, I want to know what happened.”  How awesome is that?

Fincher’s next project is a remake of the British miniseries House of Cards (1990), which I would highly recommend to those with an interest in political thrillers.  Unlike State of Play (2009), this is not an abridgement of a great series into a movie, but a full on remake.  Apparently, Fincher was going to do The Black Dahlia (2006) but as a miniseries and when that fell through moved onto Zodiac, which he also wanted to make significantly longer than it turned out to be.  I suspect, then, that House of Cards (2013) will not be his last miniseries, and as a huge fan of the medium, I am very glad of it.

This is a movie you buy, no question.  If you liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and mysteries in general, then you’ll enjoy this.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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