In the late 1960s, someone calling himself "Zodiac" made a few phone calls and sent a few letters claiming to be the man behind a series of murders in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of his communiques were written in an unusual cipher, leading to a brief but bright flash of public interest in the case. Finding nothing, the police departments involved sent the Zodiac files to the archives, but Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist at the Chronicle during the time of Zodiac's mailings, remained obsessed with determining the identity of the killer for years — decades — afterward. Graysmith eventually settled on a suspect the cops had previously ruled out, but the guy died before re-examination and the case remains unsolved.
I came away from Zodiac with one impression at the forefront of my mind: vintage vending machines. The film's packed with them. And I don't just mean vending machines from a single time period: the story spans fourteen years, to we're threated to vending machines from the late 60s, early 70s, late 70s and early 80s. Either Fincher loves him some vending machines, or his production designer does.
Though highly prominent, the vending machines are only representative of a wider excellence in production design. As I've discussed before, recent-past films must be a tremendous pain in the butt to do, because you can't muddle through with modern-day set dressing, and you can't exactly go to the early-20th-century prop department either. Plus, most of the people alive during your movie's time frame are still around to call you on your inaccuracies. (Some guy recently wrote Roger Ebert to complain that, in No Country for Old Men, ATMs weren't nearly as common in 1980 as Woody Harrelson's lines may or may not have implied.) But Zodiac does it so right that there were times I forgot I wasn't watching the actual time period. So obsessive is the detail that it's almost the work of a madman.
But I suppose we should expect no less from Fincher, perhaps the visually slickest filmmaker of his generation. Though not a man with especially bold aesthetic visions, he nevertheless executes them near-perfectly. On other counts, I'm more conflicted about his body of work. The Game pulled me in, but then disappointed me with turgid heavy-handedness about a man's coldhearted, mercenary pursuit of something something. Panic Room engaged me just about as well, but it left my mind as quickly as it entered. Fight Club I at once strongly like and strongly dislike, which depends on whether I interpret it as commentary on the hollow consumerism and societal fragmentation of an America in "late capitalism" (dumb) or as a commentary on the ultimate intellectual bankruptcy of activist movements that tilt against society as a whole (very smart). And Alien3 is, well, Alien3.
Zodiac bears no obvious message about greed, paranoia or SocietyTM, which is good. It doesn't even feel the need to tie up loose ends, which is, in a very similar way, good. This ambiguity may have been dictated by the material: after all, they never definitively figured out the Zodiac case, and they're unlikely to make much more progress with their prime suspect sixteen years underground. The picture's big payoff comes when Graysmith, having sacrificed most elements of his life in pursuit of an answer, enters the hardware store where the man he's convinced is Zodiac works. He just stares at the guy, which is way more satisfying than if he'd, say, flown into a rage and given him the old ground-and-pound.
I should address one problem that's common to almost all films this mainstream: you recognize every single actor as an actor. All the primary and most of the secondary characters are "name" performers. Graysmith is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, of whom I feel I've seen an awful lot lately. His confidant about the case is a crime reporter played by Robert Downey Jr. The main cops are Anthony Edwards (with hair!) and Mark Ruffalo. They all do good jobs — some do excellent ones — but they're too well-known to truly become their characters. Knowing details about these players' personal lives via involuntary cultural osmosis gets in the way of knowing their characters in the same way that seeing a friend or acquaintance pop up in a movie takes you out of it. That's not a hard-bitten lieutenant, it's Tyler from school. That's not a hooker on the brink, it's Sarah from spinning class. That's not a Zodiac-obsessed cartoonist, it's this vaguely wimpy-looking dude whose face I somehow see every day.
11. Well-known actors are usually more distraction than benefit. If I had my druthers, films would be populated only by unknowns. That way, there'd be one less layer of make-believe between the viewer and the character. Tom Cruise will always be primarily Tom Cruise onscreen; only secondarily, if at all, will he be who he's portraying. If they're exceptionally skilled and bring the performance of a lifetime — recent examples include Helen Mirren's Elizabeth II and Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview — some famous actors can counterbalance the disruption of their presence, but that's a lot of work just to break even.
- Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
- Julian Schnabel's The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly
- Béla Tarr's The Man from London
- Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood
- Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men
- Anton Corbijn's Control
- Robinson Devor's Zoo
- Ang Lee's Lust, Caution
- Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others
- David Fincher's Zodiac
- Gary Hustwit's Helvetica
- Matthew Ogens' Confessions of a Superhero
- Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited
- Jason Reitman's Juno
- David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises
- Greg Mottola's Superbad
- Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That
- Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
- Anthony Hopkins' Slipstream
- Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis
- Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
- Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth
- Jake Kasdan's The TV Set
- David Silverman's The Simpsons Movie
- J.A. Bayona's The Orphanage