David Fincher is one of my favorite directors of all time. The man can do no wrong in my eyes, even when he followed the groundbreaking and brilliant film Fight Club with the pretty okay/mostly watchable Panic Room. Even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was really long and not memorable at all and…wait, this is supposed to be complimentary. Okay, so that film had the opposite effect while I was watching it, making me feel like I was aging in high speed instead of growing younger like the title character, granted. Academy Award nominated missteps aside, the man is a gifted filmmaker, in my mind, without peer when it comes to dark psychological drama.
In the film Zodiac Fincher displays his incredible talent by making a story with no conclusion that is entirely about bare bones detective work, factual analysis, witness testimony, and conjecture into a compulsively watchable thriller. Aside from a handful of chilling and deeply disturbing scenes of violence, nothing really happens in the traditional rhythm of a studio film. We never really see the killer or truly understand his motivations, faithful to the documented history of the events portrayed. There are no car chases or shootouts. No one races to anyone else’s rescue. This is a film that leaves a lot of questions unanswered making it that much more compelling for its refusal to pander to its audience. More to the point, this story has to do with the people hunting Zodiac, rather than the killer himself, and Fincher does an uncanny job creating the same addiction to details that the characters themselves are driven by. By the end of the film we feel like part of the story, puzzling over the loose ends, contemplative of the horrors committed, and eager for some more satisfying conclusion that sadly has not come to light, decades after the incidents themselves.
This is the real horror of the story itself; the embodiment of evil in human form. The calculated murders of random people by a sadistic and intelligent personality. The failure of modern day law enforcement to protect us and capture a monster. The boogeyman in grown up form, armed with a 9mm Luger and a flair for the dramatic, who taunts us with letters and ciphers, and then escapes into the night as freely as he arrived. This is an adult nightmare, when the security and stability of society is shown to be illusory in the public eye, in black and white print, where everyone can see.
There is not a single flawed performance in the entire film, Fincher is as gifted of a technical director as he is an actor’s director. Every performance is layered with deeper motivation, be it a tired bureaucrat, an apathetic detective, or the manic researcher. This world feels completely functional and occupied. It’s a study in film work, in how to move a camera to tell a visual story with very little visual art to speak of, where the mundane can be hypnotic and normality becomes surreal. A perfect example is the questioning of the principal suspect, where Fincher draws the viewer in by subtlety changing the attitude of the camera, from observational to inspective, calling attention to the thing that feels off about the interactions until we are face to face with the principal characters. This is a technique used by Jonathan Demme to great effect in Philadelphia and Silence of the Lambs, where the camera is looking directly into the actors, who are staring directly back.
It’s difficult to describe what is so engrossing about this film, I can’t really pin it down except to say that although I watched it yesterday and it has a pretty healthy 2 and a 1/2 hour running time, I could probably sit down and watch it again. If you have ever been hooked by a true crime documentary or been compelled to research a news story beyond the stated facts, this is the movie for you. It’s like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries directed by one of the most gifted directors working today and populated by actual professional actors. And, unfortunately, without the soothing narration of Robert Stack, but my point is, I walk away from Zodiac with my own theories rolling around in my head. It plays out like the fascinating puzzle it is: almost completely solved if not for a few missing pieces. Like an itch in that place you just can’t completely get to but you reach for it anyway.