I remember seeing this in the theater when it first came out. When I left I remember saying that I knew it was a good movie, I just wasn't sure if I liked it. Then later that year I was doing my annual Top Ten of the Year Roundup, and I gave Zodiac the special award of "Movie That Will Most Likely Grow in My Estimation as Time Goes By." That hypothesis was both true and not true, as was confirmed by this rewatching.
Let me say, to begin with, that I think David Fincher is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I frequently tell people "Fight Club" is my favorite movie of all time. I love The Game, I think Panic Room is a brilliant, fun thriller, Se7en, on could argue, was one of the most influential movies of the past twenty years, plus the dude did some absolutely astounding music videos back in the day, so when I go into a Fincher movie, I'm looking for brilliance. I will also say this possibly quite controversial little nugget: I think Fincher is the closest filmmaker we currently have to Kubrick in regards to his technical mastery and his distance, or "coldness," in his relation to his characters. Also like Kubrick I think that, usually anyways, Fincher has an incredible understanding of project choice as fits his talents. However, lately he appears to be trying to stretch himself out a bit, get a little more humanity into his movies, and it's an interesting thing to watch. It definitely started here in Zodiac, and from what I hear (I have not seen it yet) The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons also attempts to tell a more human story than Fincher has in the past.
The key word, of course, is "attempts." I'll be the first to admit, in Zodiac it doesn't entirely work. Fincher is throwing in a lot of human elements, but he's still not making them the focus of the story. This is still a procedural, just like Se7en, at its heart, was still a procedural. The crux of this can be seen in how Fincher deals with the home life of Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith. We see Gyllenhaal dealing with his children in a warm, parental way that is, while brief, very human and real, as opposed to how Fincher dealt with the mother and daughter in Panic Room, which was to bluntly use the familial love and Kristen Stewart's wounded bird quality as a way to racket up the tension. He's showing more investment in this human element of family life than he ever has before, but it's still not a driving force in the film. The same can be said for the relationship between police partners Anthony Edwards and Mark Ruffalo. Their relationship is certainly more levelled and human than the mentor/mentee relationship between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in Se7en, but Fincher still only allows us glimpses. He's incredibly smart and fortunate in that he's got a cast of absolutely incredible actors filling out even the smallest of roles. Of course Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are going to be able to eek out some real emotions and feelings from their workaday moments because there are very few actors today that can portray that "I'm a good guy just trying to do my job" vibe like Ruffalo or especially Edwards. And Robert Downey Jr., let's talk about that gift to cinema for a second. He's today's best scene-stealer, with a true gift for finding the heart of every character and the injecting it with amphetamines. In any other movie his character would be the intrepid reporter fighting back against ineffectual police and curmudgeonly editors, but here he's a mess, a danger to himself and a questionable talent as a reporter. But he sure does have flair, doesn't he? You can see why you'd keep him around, if only just to go have a drink with after work.
And work is what it's all about here. Everyone is consumed with their job, and their job, whether its what they're actually employed to do or not, becomes The Zodiac Killer. It seems to me that David Fincher is a man who understands being consumed by work. This is, after all, the man who had someone actually fill in all the journals found in John Doe's apartment in Se7en and has been chasing the project Rendezvous with Rama for years. If anything, perhaps he knows such compulsion almost too well. The movie mirrors that tragectory of obsession. It begins with a bang, a graphic, horrifying piece of violence that represents that initial spark that grabs a hold of someone. There are a couple more scenes of violence, but then the film levels out and we're left with half-clues and starts and stops. It's the making of every true obsession, that hook that lands solidly and then the constant chase of that same fulfillment. We know when Graysmith's wife, played by Chloe Sevigny, asks when it will finally be enough, Graysmith's answer of "when I can look into his eyes" is a lie, perhaps just as much to himself as to his wife. If they'd caught the Zodiac the next day and Graysmith got to book the man himself, it wouldn't be enough. He'd still need to collect information, write the book, talk about the case with the parties involved. It's obsession, and just like phobias it's unreasonable, it has a life of its own. Which makes it fascinating that Fincher choses to both open and close the movie NOT on our protagonist. The movie's obsession literally has a life of its own, the movies opening murder and closing with a victim identifying the primary suspect out of a line-up both exist outside of our main character's experience. But again, who is the main character? Is it Jake Gyllenhaal, or is it that lingering, just-hidden-out-of-plain-s
ight answer that hovers over the lives of everyone in the film?
Hitchcock coined the film term the MacGuffin, which is basically the item that drives the plot of the movie, for example, the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, one of Hitchcock's other caveats about the MacGuffin is that the audience doesn't have to care about what it is. Does it matter that Indiana Jones is chasing after the Ark of the Covenant? Obviously not, since we've also been just as invested in him chasing after three sacred stones and the Holy Grail as well. What is important is that it matters to Indy. The curious thing about Zodiac is that it undermines the MacGuffin on multiple fronts. First of all, it blatantly lets you know who it thinks dunnit. Secondly, we all know that the Zodiac case went unsolved. So we know who they THINK did it, and we also know that they're never going to catch him. So where is our investment? Perhaps that's the question the movie is hoping to pose to all of us.
The movie seems to be purposefully undercutting the typical Hitchcockian thriller in many ways. Graysmith is neither a naif "in the wrong place at the wrong time," nor is he the clever, unassuming investigator. He's smart, but not overly clever. He doesn't help anyone or solve anything; he only seeks, he never finds. Another famous Hitchcockism is that he filmed "every murder like a love scene, and every love scene like a murder." Zodiac has no love scene. Graysmith's relationship with the Chloe Sevigny character is even, at times, played for laughs regarding how NON-passionate it is. Also, the killings that are shown are, in my opinion, some of the more upsetting murders in cinema, as they are filmed so dispassionatley. The murder at the lake is absolutely horrific because it is done so simply, so straightforward. There's a quiet immediacy to it that forces to the front of the viewer's mind that THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. In any other film the moment where the killer begins stabbing the couple would be accompanied by hard cuts and blood squirts and soundtrack stings, it would excite the viewer into a frenzy of terror. I don't believe any blood is seen in the lakeside killing. There's certainly no soundtrack, and the camera just watches. It's not like early Wes Craven, where the violence is given a documentary feel to make it look "real," partially in that this movie doesn't need to fake you into thinking its real, as the events here actually took place. Also, there's something even more offsetting in seeing something presented so cleanly, so familiarly, yet dropping the bottom out of the normal tinges of escapist excitement or the shock of "Holy crap, that looked so real, how'd they do that!" and forcing you to really watch what's taking place on-screen.
I put this movie on the NetFlix cue because I was showing Emily the Korean film Memories of Murder, which I own, and explained it to her as "The Korean version of 'Zodiac'," and when she said she hadn't seen Zodiac, onto the cue it went. I think Memories of Murder is a better movie, I'd recommend it to anyone who likes Zodiac - in fact, I'd recommend it to just about anyone - but there is something beautifully mysterious about Zodiac that I find thrilling. It's imperfect, but its flaws, many of which seem intentional, are also part of its strange charm.