Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Dir. David Fincher

Films based on true stories are built on unstable ground and they have a nasty habit of being sensationalist pieces of star-studded non-fiction. While David Fincher's Zodiac fits this general description it can be ruled out of the stereotyped canon of murder mystery/crime dramas based on real events. Fincher's films tend to be highly stylized and blatantly metaphorical. Fight Club, Se7en and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are films that look amazing but lack the substance to make them much more than entertaining. In Zodiac Fincher removes a lot of the flash-bang cinematography for which he has become famous and inserts copious amounts of suspense and drama. With Zodiac Fincher has finally covered territory that is both thrilling and believable; intense and subtle. His characters aren't symbols (not literally, although the killer does call himself the Zodiac) and in detailing the process of a murder investigation that occurs over over 20 years, Fincher shows their degradation and fallibility. The frustration and bureaucracy that accompanies all police work, is sketched magnificently lending Zodiac an air of realism that makes the fact that it was based on a true story almost obsolete.

The genre of non-fiction in cinema often comes with the pretext of being authentic. It would seem the common opinion is “But its based on real life”. Unfortunately, in many cases, this becomes a justification for Hollywood to weave a more elaborate and less believable film than the historical scenario may actually have allowed (see: Saving Private Ryan, Valkyrie, Che, Into the Wild, etc. etc.). It is rarely a point of honesty, rather it is a device used to attract viewers. Films based on true stories are no more or less incredible because of the fact and sometimes suffer under the burden of the amount of information required to properly contextualize the film, including the classic post-narrative detailing how the story concludes. Zodiac doesn't entirely avoid this. At times the amount of detail is overbearing and the plot gets buried under scores of police chiefs, detectives, newspaper reporters and various other characters who add substance but also muddy the clarity of the film's intent. Then again, if Zodiac's goal was to mystify (the ending, after all, is inconclusive) then these moments, perhaps unintentionally, help assist that. Despite being distracting at times this obsession with detail is one of the film's only hindrances and is really a two way street as the details make each successive watching more captivating than the one before it.

The detail orientated nature of the script does not overpower the performances given by the actors in the film. Jake Gyllenhaal's good looks and even better character acting is employed for the part of Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who wrote the book that the film is based on, and who, in lieu of conclusive evidence on the part of the police, becomes the main protagonist in the murder mystery. He plays alongside Robert Downey Jr. as drunken, solipsist writer Paul Avery at the same newspaper. Throw in Mark Ruffalo as detective Dave Toschi and you've already got most of what it takes to make an ego-driven Hollywood detective story. Only it isn't. It isn't because these three actors, and all the rest of the actors in the film know how to interact with each other and appear dutifully committed to the accurate portrayal of their characters. Herein lies the notable advantage to doing a non-fiction film: actors have fodder for their performances in physical and written form. They have the option of playing detective themselves and really digging into the history of the story. The cast manage the complicated scenario with admirable earnestness and ease. These said performances in conjunction with a thrilling and maze-like story is truly the full realization of the murder mystery sub genre of the larger non-fiction based crime drama. So many like-films have attempted to create a rich and compelling story but fail because of their devotion to spectacle over substance.

With Zodiac David Fincher has made a crime drama of the caliber of Silence of the Lambs. It is an eerie, disturbing who-done-it with a simple concept that is pushed to a remarkable extreme without ever becoming extravagant. In short, it is Fincher's most controlled and focused picture yet. While his upcoming projects, including two films based on graphic novels and a biopic about Eliot Ness, have all the earmarks of being in league with Fincher's more salient pictures, he has showed great potential as a well balanced film maker. Time will tell whether or not he will choose the path of lesser resistance. Commercial appeal and coolness are certainly enticing, but after proving his capacity as a director who can skew the obvious mechanisms of a dated genre and make it exciting and provocative, one can only hope that he will prove to be up to the challenge of making a film as good, or better, than Zodiac.

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