BY NEIL FAUERSO
David Fincher was, for a time, my least favorite director. After the slick, ghoulish nihilism of Seven (which has held up surprisingly well), Fincher dive-bombed and made three outrageously overrated duds. The most glaring of course, is Fight Club, a beloved, limply lionized “counter-culture” film of my generation. A wanna-be Clockwork Orange, Fight Club was, and still is, massively stupid gizmo-trickery masquerading as a revolutionary head-trip. Emboldened, Fincher made two remarkably pretentious genre pictures (The Game and Panic Room) filled with CGI zooms through keyholes and gun-barrels and relentless hamming. These were dumb movies dressed up with the clacking costume jewelry of tech-gimmickry, and I can’t believe how much I still hate them.
But something amazing has happened. Maybe it was from turning 40, but for the last five years David Fincher was obsessed with the Zodiac Killer and . This isn’t just the best film of Fincher’s career, it’s one of the best casework thrillers ever. Impeccably acted and stunningly filmed with a meticulous, holographic evocation of California in the 1960s and 1970s, Zodiac is the best American film of 2007 so far.
The Zodiac Killer, who famously murdered six people throughout California, was never caught. Zodiac is about three men whose lives were irreparably changed by the killings: a detective, Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a hotshot crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), and a cartoonist turned armchair sleuth, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film follows them as they chase red-herrings and false leads, and have creepy brushes with what maybe the real killer. Thus, for many, Zodiac may be a decidedly frustrating experience: it’s absolutely episodic, meandering, and almost three hours long. A good chunk of the film is spent on ultimately innocent subjects. Another good chunk is spent on codes, files, phone calls between departments, and other procedurals. This not Seven. No corpses coming back to life to the sound of Nine Inch Nails.
So what makes Zodiac so mesmerizing? For one, Fincher has reinvented himself as a director of immense restraint and grace. Gone is the brain-dead tomfoolery of his earlier films. Zodiac is fluid and elegant, and the incredible recreation of period San Francisco is loving and coolly framed.
Though Zodiac is leisurely paced, the acting is so universally thrilling it hardly matters. Downey Jr. has become a sort of bonus charm in a movie; his mere presence elevates and fizzes up any picture. Gyllenhaal is subtle and nuanced, shedding the boyish blankness of earlier roles. Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, and Philip Baker Hall are also superb.
Zodiac doesn’t rely on shock-Pavlovian horror moves. The murders are matter-of-fact and horrifying. They provide the brutal core of this brilliant, brainy film. Innocent people indeed were murdered in cold blood, and a few men gave most of their lives to finding the killer. A