The news that David Fincher was going to make another film on a serial killer was not encouraging. When he made Seven over ten years ago, he made a statement film that pronounced every style and theme that would run in his filmography. Why did he have to make another film on the subject? With Zodiac, his new film, the news is excellent. He has superseded every expectation and made a mature work.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. star in the true story about the notorious Zodiac killer that terrorized California from the late 60s through the early 70s. Gyllenhaal is Robert Graysmith, a young cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who becomes enthralled by the mystery and jeopardizes a new marriage over his obsession. Ruffalo is a homicide detective that puts his career on the line because of his tactics to solve the murder. Downey is a crime reporter who finds notoriety because of his writing but tries to live on the same level of popularity as the killer. The film is a deeply involved in the details of the investigation, but the true portrait of this film is on the victims who committed their lives to following it.
The film is based on the books that Robert Graysmith wrote years later. The books theorized a better idea of who the killer likely was. But because the killer was never caught, the film has little heroics to speak of. Instead the film is a documentation of the effects that murder has on the people involved committed to finding the killers. Many films have told the stories that closure does not exist for the families of murder victims. Zodiac makes the same case for homicide detectives and investigators. Most crime films are the stuff of fictional heroics. Zodiac is a rare serious look at the reality of crime.
The story of David Fincher is that he is continuing to simplify his filmmaking. He became famous for heavily stylized films like Seven and Fight Club. Then with Panic Room he started to condense his filmmaking. The story was simple and Fincher didn’t try to out direct it. The film still had intricate camera shots, but Fincher was trying to honor the simplicity of the story. In Zodiac, the maturation seems complete. The camera is almost stagnant through out and shows a dedication by Fincher to really gage the characters in the story. Certain shots will stand out to many who watch the film, but Fincher is more level headed than ever in keeping the camera still and following the characters.
Zodiac seems like a good sign for things to come with Fincher. Seven is not a bad film, but it is more of a stylistic exercise than anything. The story has little believability outside of a filmic realm. Zodiac not only has thoughtful characters, but it also digs at truths that many films have ignored. Fincher has not only made a good drama, but has made a better comment film.
Many critics and fans are already applauding Zodiac. The reasons are simple: Fincher has made the detective film relevant and has distanced himself from the limitations of his past films. Fight Club had intricate shots that were surrounded by special effects. The film tried to achieve depth, but was also rhythmic to its sensationalized world. Zodiac has a methodical approach to storytelling that reaches for a clinical, detached tone. Realism carries the story. While Zodiac is an excellent work, the hype should be contained. The filmmaking in the film shows little what we should come to expect from him in the future. The film should indicate the restraint Fincher is capable of and his new inspiration to make character oriented films.
One of the reasons is that Zodiac is a unique project for any accomplished filmmaker. Most prominent filmmakers have some identity of a style, but all would be forced to follow the lead of a story like the one in Zodiac. It is an investigation film that is dense with details and the characterization is tightly in the midst of those details. There is little room for Fincher’s style to exist. The best thing Fincher is able to do is heighten the tense moments. The comparable film is All the President’s Men. It was also a tense thriller that had larger ramifications in its story. Fincher equates his filmmaking to be comparable to the work in that film. Certain filmic touches are distinguishable, but the depth of the film is a basic dedication to heightening the scenes.
Those who are critical of the film have caught on to that idea. If this film was not about the darker side of life, this film easily could be a director-for-hire gig for Fincher. His history has always shown a flair for style. The fact that Fincher is able to tell a simple story is less an accomplishment than it is more of a sign that he has different rhythms to his style. There is more filmmaking depth with any of his other films than with this one. Past films, while sometimes stylistically appropriate for the subject, did little to help the story. The hyped style of Fight Club suggested a decadent world but didn’t suggest schizophrenia. That angle was the deepest vein in the story. The film needed to be appropriate the filmmaking to heighten it. Fincher didn’t take the next step to show it so the film came off as intense but without depth. The reason Zodiac succeeds is based on the depths of the screenplay and the acting. The simple filmmaking makes it a perfect marriage.
Zodiac looks like it is a transition work for David Fincher. In a recent interview, he talked about how he approached directing Zodiac differently. Instead of a hundred meticulous storyboards, he approached everyday with less plans about how to shoot and instilled more work with the actors. The effort became more collaborative and as shooting went on longer, so did the number of takes per scene. Fincher began playing with every scene to dig at nuance. His maturation was that he wanted to shoot to better capture performances. This approach shows the basics of filmmaking for character oriented films. Instead of the David Fincher focusing on intricate shot ideas, he is shooting for the essence of every scene.
First, consider the maturation of a past filmmaker. When Akira Kurosawa began the 1960s, he had already defined what many would be happy to call a career. His filmmaking (primarily his editing) was revolutionary. Then, beginning with a simple crime film, High and Low, he began to change. He diluted his former editing schemes to film scenes to achieve simplistic heights. The first half of High and Low is set in one room. Later showing reverence for Andrei Tarkovsky, he was a filmmaker who wanted to reach heights of transcendence. Later masterworks like Ran could never have been possible if Kurosawa didn’t evolve.
It shouldn’t be assumed that David Fincher is on his way to become Kurosawa, but both filmmakers have telling similarities. Both High and Low and Zodiac are considered simple works for both directors, but both are transcending works for their genre. When Kurosawa made High and Low, he was making a realist version of a noir film. He was not subscribing to the romanticism that defined the genre in the 1940s. He was making a film that subscribed to the realism of a police investigation and had a less than romantic ending. I do not know if real police detectives felt indebted to Kurosawa’s portrayal of police work, but I doubt they had much belief in the Hollywood idea.
The press around Zodiac says that David Fincher has made a wholly accurate film. Crime writers like James Ellroy have already said the film is dead on and ends a large period of filmmakers making movies about serial killers and police investigations that really had no clue. Ellroy endorses Fincher’s former efforts, but I take exception to that. And I think Fincher may as well. Seven is well done and all, but doing a film like Zodiac on the same subject could have been the only way Fincher was able to get past the mold he cast himself into with the public. David Fincher may have given the world one of the best comment films on serial killers and also could have given his final comment on the subject. It could be saying too much that one of Kurosawa’s first successful films was an awkward but honest crime movie, Stray Dog. When he made High and Low nearly twenty years later, he never touched the genre again.
The next film for David Fincher is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Unlike anything he has done before, it is a romantic epic about a man who grows young while everyone around him grows old. Fincher is acknowledging it will touch sentimentalities he has never done before. It is also continuing his filmmaking strategy of Zodiac. It has a shooting schedule of over 110 days (like Zodiac did) and the interest is in the character over the style.
Do not expect Fincher to entirely strip the style though. As said before, Zodiac was a unique story that required a unique dedication. Even during that film Fincher was able to throw a few jabs in that took him back. One instance in the film was the quick history of a building being raised is shown. The simple purpose was to show the passage of time. While any other filmmaker would have likely found a different (and more economically sound) idea, Fincher still could not help himself. It was a technically impressive camera trick. The fantastic story of Benjamin Button will likely give him ample excuse to continue with those shots. The question is that if Fincher will be able to merge more of his older style to make authentic character portraits.
For a film that could look like a director-for-hire gig, Fincher is still deft with one detail of filmmaking that was outstanding in his previous films: production. Seven was so good at its look and feel that it became a trend style for a lot of bad imitation films. It is arguable that the best part about Fight Club is the craftsmanship to paint a background that meshes underground fight scenes with corporate seediness so well. Fincher’s filmmaking style that seems alive in this film is his meticulous attention to detail in production. The opening shot, a stagnant camera shot from a moving car, shows a few blocks of a residential neighborhood during 1960s Halloween. There doesn’t seem to be one missing detail that doesn’t perfectly recreate the period. The scene is just a set up to a perfect film of meticulous detail that one forgets they are watching an attempt to recreate a previous decade. Zodiac rivals the imagination of production that went into Seven (Zodiac for its ability to recreate 60s/70s realism and Seven for its gothic cityscape).