David Fincher: Zodiac (2007) - Can't Stop the Movies
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David Fincher: Zodiac (2007)

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Here we are to Zodiac, the movie that I think you and I will agree on the most. To sum it up, this movie is great from the direction to the script and the pitch perfect casting of character actors. It also melds two of David Fincher’s favorite themes, obsession and helplessness into one living/breathing entity.

This is the second serial killer thriller that Fincher did and it could not be any more different than Se7en, which I think is a main reason of its failure at the box-office. When Se7en was horrific because of your imagination and all of the implied terrors, Zodiac is terrifying because it shows the crimes. Not only does it show the crimes but also it shows the calm before the storm. I would love to see a horror movie by Fincher because I think it would be the scariest thing ever because these few moments the Zodiac is in the film are incredibly tense.

Another way the two films are different is that Se7en is a movie that is all forward momentum propelling the characters further and further down the rabbit hole while Zodiac takes its time with the investigation and allows the film to breathe. Finally, the two films might be in the same genre but on opposite ends of the spectrum. Se7en was a thriller bordering on horror film while Zodiac was a drama with a bit of forensic thriller thrown in. I love the fact that these films are so different but both great in their own ways. I think that is another reason why I was a little bit disappointed by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo because it didn’t do anything new; it was more of a greatest hits package from his other two films.

Before I throw it back to you, I have one question for you. Does the film feel like two separate movies to you? I almost feel like I am watching Zodiac and its sequel back to back. When the movie jumps forward four years it has almost reinvented itself. Zodiac the character takes a backseat and is almost non-existent in the film. While his presence is felt in every frame, the actual “character” is not around. Another jarring change from the first to the second parts of the film is how it shuffles around the importance of characters. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is gone for most of the second half of the film, only popping up in two short bursts and Inspector Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) is the same way. The movie changes its focus to Robert Grayson (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his obsessive quest to find the identity of the killer. In the first half, it is a thriller about Zodiac and in the second half it is a drama about the obsession of finding Zodiac.

I believe the movie would have worked if it ended after Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Grayson have their conversation in the movie theater about Dirty Harry with everything else being a totally separate movie. Do you feel the same way with this? Also, I will give you the weak female hypothesis you have been discussing this whole series is Zodiac, Melanie (Chloe Sevigny) is nothing but a wet blanket in this film that has no purpose in the film other than frown disapprovingly at Grayson.

Yes, Ryan, for once we both get to bask in each other’s glorious praising of a film which can barely be praised enough. After what, for me, are the dry runs at greatness with Seven and The Game Fincher finally took a step back from his music video pacing, let the story breathe and the results are astounding.

I hate to agree with you on why Zodiac failed, and it has to do everything with its subtlety. I’ve been thinking about Spike Lee a lot lately, and how he made the quintessential American film in Do the Right Thing. He tried to do the same thing for the serial killer in Summer of Sam, and while that movie is good, it still backfired with what feeds into the mania behind the fear of a killer.

Zodiac succeeds where Summer of Sam and Seven failed because it delves right into what a slow, maddening process it has been for America to realize that something is slowly stalking it. We were firmly entrenched in “Post-9/11“ culture when Zodiac was finally released and even if paranoia about Muslims as the secret killers was not at a high it was still on everyone’s mind. So who, in John Q. Public’s mind, wants to go watch a movie about someone who writes in code but whose desires are plain, kills without warning as a faceless threat, and can’t be caught, only felt?

Keeping in mind when this was released, the film itself takes place after the Vietnam war was in full swing and ends shortly after it does. That’s why Fincher loads the film with news events in the background rather than using it as an obvious measure of showing how time passes. We go from the time when we were most definitely the heroes to when we no longer are the good guys and, more than that, looks like we were responsible for creating our own killer. This also goes back into what you were saying, where the film has a more “hero-oriented" view of itself to begin with and slowly descends into alcoholism and obsession over the course of its second half. Yes, it’s no wonder audiences flocked to the film.

That said, Sevigny’s character serves an important purpose in the film beyond being a wet-blanket. She’s still not a greatly written character, but eventually serves as a reminder of the America that we’ve left behind. Remember that it’s Gyllenhaal who can’t let go of the past and go back to his nuclear family but instead decides to sequester himself in books and obsessive riddles no matter how much danger it places him in. Sevigny, in this film, serves a similar purpose in this film as Paltrow does in Seven but comes off far stronger as she’s not just the tool of one killers revenge on everything. Instead, she abandons the life that Gylenhaal has provided for her because she just can’t follow him down the hole of madness anymore.

And this, folks, is why all liberals keep threatening to go to Canada every time there’s a new election.

My main problem with Sevigny's character is that her and Gyllenhaal had no chemistry at all. In Se7en, you believed the marriage of Pitt and Paltrow, but here, the two seem to be married because that is what the script dictates. I didn't see any spark or love between them, did they both just settle? Was their lack of chemistry on purpose or was it the actors fault? I have often wondered that point in the film and it always takes me out of the movie a bit, but that is one small issue in a great film.

I find it funny that this is Fincher's quiet film because the beginning of the film is just tense. Very few movies with serial killers do the viewer’s feel any real danger, but there are parts of Zodiac that unsettle me for a while after viewing. I agree with what you are saying in your comparison with Summer of Sam (even though I despised that film) with both directors trying to make you feel the uncertainty and terror citizens felt at that time. For most of the world, they will never come in contact with a man-eating shark, alien or any other "big bad" that are common place in films but serial killers, while very rare, exist.

How do you know the guy driving behind you, or enjoying the day on the other side of the park or countless other strangers you encounter during the day aren't someone looking to do you harm? After watching Zodiac, a person might notice the person walking behind them a bit more and they might naturally pick up their pace almost unconsciously. Hannibal Lecter never scared me nor did John Doe or Norman Bates because they never felt like anything more than a movie boogie man. Zodiac scared the living shit out of me because it was real, brutal and almost senseless. There was no motive, purpose or pattern with the killer and the randomness of the crimes would have been what put me the most on edge.

I never thought about the correlation between this film and 9/11 but I can totally see it now. Much like Zodiac, the terrorist attacks took lives and was tragic on an epic scale, but the way it affected all of America is it made us feel un-safe, something we had not felt in generations. When would another attack happen, how would it happen and where? Those were questions many people asked after 9/11and purposeful or not, Fincher uses those same feelings of fearing the unknown well in Zodiac to coat the film in a layer of terror.

While it has become kind of boring in this Fincher fest to point out his "pretty pictures" the shot of The Golden Gate Bridge at night stepped in fog is one of Fincher's classic shots and is another one to just marvel at. Andrew, any last thoughts?

Aside from “lookit all da purdy pictcha’s” this is Fincher’s most durable film visually because of the way he evokes each era without calling attention to it. Fashions subtly change but we never see anyone wearing egregious bell-bottoms or sporting a massive ‘fro. The same thing happens when the film moves closer to the 80’s, we see everyone getting more corporate without recasting the entire film with Gordon Gecko’s.

Also, just something I found funny since you mentioned the opposite, you see a lot more violence in Seven than you do with Zodiac. Aside from the very scary encounter at the beginning of the film there are very little encounters with the man, and even then we spend more time letting John Doe rant about eating dogs or whatever the hell he was on about in Seven. Further still, we spend even less time at the crime scenes, which lets most of the movie play out in our heads as far as the violence is concerned, letting the performers play out the psychological effects.

Hell, this is the first, and to date only, Fincher film I’ve seen where I’d describe the psychology of the characters on a level of someone like Bergman (though The Game comes close). A lot of this credit goes to the performer’s we’ve noted (though I clearly enjoy Sevigny’s understatement a lot more than you do) but also to screenwriter James Vanderbilt. I wonder how much of his own obsession in figuring out the minutiae of the serial killer eeked into the dialogue he crafted.

He also gets a lot of credit for avoiding any obvious moments. Sure, the doting wife goes to stay with her mom, but after months of subtle signs that she wasn’t happy in the relationship anymore. There’s no clichéd detective dialogue, no big confrontations where everyone has to scream at each other in a fever pitch, nothing but pure progression of thought and action. I admire Vanderbilt and his willingness to really commit to something as subtle as the work required for Zodiac, even if he did write the screenplay for what is arguably the most fun and underrated action movie ever.

I bet you appreciate that factoid more than most, huh Ryan?

As much as I do love The Social Network, Zodiac is easily the best movie Fincher made. It takes a step back from the sometimes immature excess of his earlier productions and manages to be incredibly creepy at the same time. I just wish the same could be said for our next movie, but I may have to tag out for that one.

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Join us this Friday as Andrew tags out because there is absolutely nothing interesting to say about Benjamin Button. Nothing. Not a blessed thing. And don’t let any sneaky co-writers on the site tell you otherwise.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Oh Andrew, you know the way to my heart is to mention The Rundown. Also good catch on the subtle ways he shows the passage of time in the film.

  2. Not to be the fact-checker guy, but Spike Lee’s Son of Sam movie is called Summer of Sam. I loved Zodiac and I can understand the comparisons between the two, but I prefer Summer of Sam myself. Zodiac is perhaps the better serial killer film, as it’s concerned with hunting the killer while Summer of Sam is all about how the people are reacting. I haven’t seen Zodiac in years, so I can’t discuss it to the best of my ability, but it is definitely one of Fincher’s best films.

    • Not to worry, and that really highlights how long it’s been since I watched Summer of Sam. I’m with you that both films are great, but the attempts at humor in Summer of Sam make for good satire against the media scare about serial killers (this – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THh1pPWEoWs – is fucking perfect) and broader community scope dilute Lee’s point somewhat. It’s still intact though, and both are great flicks. (even if Ryan may disagree there).

  3. Around here it does sound quite extreme. Andrew and ryan both you guys makes amazing impression here about the Zodiac serial. I did not watch it yet but Now I think I must watch this exciting Zodiac serial and will drop something for this post update. Keep answering and Will be back. 🙂

  4. What about the dialogue and the serial killer?

    • Thanks for the comment. Since we wrote this piece years back, I’ve been able to revisit Zodiac multiple times. The matter-of-fact nature of the killings themselves make the killer a powerfully unsettling presence when he appears onscreen. The dialogue never had big standout moments for me, but Gyllenhaal’s stumbling as he gets too excited over the prospect of solving the killings is a nice touch.

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