ZODIAC is playing at 7pm at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City. If you can’t make it tonight, go Saturday, assuming you’re in town. Here are the details. You will want to go, not only because ZODIAC is one of the better American films of the past decade, but also because its director, David Fincher, is introducing the Saturday screening.
The movie clearly means a lot to Fincher. It should. It’s probably his masterpiece (to date). Considering that Fincher and writer Andrew Kevin Walker redefined the serial-killer genre with 1995’s SEVEN, and that he’s one of the most wildly talented directors of his generation in general, it’s saying plenty to call ZODIAC a step up. This time around, Fincher had a script from James Vanderbilt, who spoke extensively with Robert Graysmith, the character Jake Gyllenhaal plays, before writing the movie. Robert Graysmith was a newspaper cartoonist in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He became consumed with the Zodiac Killer case, and spent years doggedly pursuing it. This case has a weird way of sucking people in, as the movie demonstrates. The Zodiac Killer murdered at least five people, taunted the authorities by mailing baffling symbols to the local papers, and sending the area into a general panic. Among the terrorized Californians hearing the news reports at the time: A very young David Fincher. So this is about as personal a story as this filmmaker has ever told, which may not be saying much: Fincher is hardly the most revealing of storytellers. His films are immaculately composed and impeccably cast and directed, but self-revelation is not among their virtues. In fact, alienation and willful isolation are much more his style.
ZODIAC has one of Mark Ruffalo’s greatest film performances thus far, as the main detective on the case. Jake Gyllenhaal is also terrific, haunted and upsettingly vulnerable, a lamb in a lion’s den. But it’s Robert Downey Jr. who just about steals the movie away as Paul Avery, the troubled, brilliant police reporter who Graysmith repeatedly petitions during the investigation. This was a year before Downey crashed the A-list with IRON MAN. His performances since then have been fizzy and fun, but if you want to see how affecting he can be, start here. Really, the movie is chock-loaded with indelible turns from incredible character actors — Donal Logue, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Philip Baker Hall, Dermot Mulroney, John Carroll Lynch — you might not know all of their names but you will be happy to see their faces, and happier still to see the performances they turn in.
The score is by David Shire, composer of the unforgettable music for THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE. The editing is by Angus Wall, who next won Academy Awards for THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Most conspicuously wonderful is the cinematography by the late Harris Savides — it’s his work that MoMA is celebrating this month. The look of the film is somewhere between the great films of the 1960s and 1970s when the story is set, with the technical sophistication and clarity of the modern age. The look is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying. A couple sequences in ZODIAC are scarier than anything found in even the best of the straight-up horror films of the era. That’s as it should be. It’s a profoundly unsettling story.
The Zodiac Killer was never caught. That probably isn’t a spoiler. It’s hard to end a movie on a satisfying note when the villain isn’t vanquished, but I think Vanderbilt’s script and Fincher’s direction find the perfect ending all the same. The movie points with some degree of certainty towards one suspect in particular, but this isn’t a movie that plans to give you a big happy dragon-slaying moment. This isn’t a director who’s usually willing to give you much of that. He made a movie to embrace the ambiguity of an often cruel and senseless world. It’s not a reassuring thought, but you’ve got plenty of entertainers lining up to supply you with those. If you want your thoughts provoked, Fincher is your guy, and ZODIAC finds him at the pinnacle of his fear-probing powers.
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