❉ Nick Clement looks back on one of David Fincher’s most absorbing films.
“Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. all did sterling work in Zodiac, each of them carving out a unique portrait of obsessive behaviour that would consume their characters at all times. And their innate abilities as on-screen artists allowed you to really “get to know” these characters on an almost casual level.”
David Fincher’s quest to become the new Alan Pakula hit new heights with his riveting serial killer/investigative journalism thriller Zodiac, which might possibly be his greatest accomplishment yet as a filmmaker. I’m never sure, to be honest, what Fincher’s “best” film is — you could make the case for nearly all of them in one way or another.
But with Zodiac, he tapped into our worst fears (that of a killer on the loose) and mixed the expected genre elements with an amazing sense of time and place, vividly recreating San Francisco during the late 60’s and early 70’s, as well as demonstrating a perfectionist’s eye in terms of both small and large narrative and visual details. He’s a methodical filmmaker and storyteller (see the recent Netflix series Mindhunter or ask Ben Affleck about his methods on Gone Girl for further proof) and he’s got such an exacting sense of directorial intent that I always feel my pulse quickening when he starts to turn the screws.
The trio of Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. all did sterling work in Zodiac, each of them carving out a unique portrait of obsessive behaviour that would consume their characters at all times. And not only are they representative of their professions (cartoonist, detective, journalist, respectively), their innate abilities as on-screen artists allowed you to really “get to know” these characters on an almost casual level. That’s due in part to Fincher’s sometimes-observational style and the breadth of James Vanderbilt’s well-rounded screenplay, but the actors really brought to life this main trio of characters. The dense, phenomenally well-researched plot requires more than one viewing to accurately parse out all of the pieces of information, while Fincher’s steady, engrossing aesthetic grips the viewer with paranoia and subtle style.
The late, great cinematographer Harris Savides (Birth, The Game, Elephant) gave Zodiac an amazing visual texture, with the digital photography augmenting all of the nighttime sequences with a realistic sense of sulfur-vapor light quality, while capturing the grisly murders with stark and brutal effectiveness on 35 mm film; the seamless blending of CGI/visual effects work and on-location shooting is worthy of study, with fascinating snippets shown on the Behind the Scenes featurette on the home video release. The deep supporting cast hammered home all of their work with rigorous perfection, with standout performances on display from John Carroll Lynch, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Philip Baker Hall, John Getz, Dermott Mulroney, John Terry, Donal Logue, Elias Koteas, Chloë Sevigny, and Adam Goldberg.
David Shire’s creepy musical score smartly used period-authentic pop songs with an unnerving ambient soundtrack to maximum effect, while Angus Wall’s fleet, razor-sharp editing kept the two hour and 40 minute film feeling light on its feet; rarely do “long” movies feel this quick. The staggering production design by Donald Graham Burt seals the entire production package. And yet, despite excellent critical support, Zodiac didn’t catch on with the Academy (maybe it was the March release date or the middling box office returns), and while 2007 was a landmark year for cinema in general, Zodiac being left out of the big dance feels incredibly short-sighted. This is one of Fincher’s most absorbing films, filled with three dimensional and vulnerable characters that you root for, while showcasing a mystery that literally has no ending, which likely frustrates just as many as it further entices.
❉ ‘Zodiac’ is available as a Region-Free Director’s Cut Blu-ray, and is also available via various high-definition streaming providers. As of February 2020, it’s currently available to stream via Netflix in America.
❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.