Although he's really hit only one bona fide cinematic home run, director David Fincher has managed to become one of the few modern directors worthy of having his last name made into an adjective. “Fincheresque” has come to describe the dark, vivid, and lucid atmosphere that the filmmaker delicately applies to each of his projects. Although the much-maligned “Alien 3” fit into this category, it wouldn't be until his aforementioned home run, “Se7en”, that people would not only notice, but they would never forget, thanks to his visual style. This success led to a three more notable films ranging from okay (“Panic Room”) to above average (“The Game”, “Fight Club”). Even when the storylines don't quite hold water, (which is more often than it may seem,) the dark, brooding visual ambiance is what keeps audiences coming back, and keeps the legion of imitators scrambling to keep up.
Fincher is of a select group of current filmmakers whose latest project will get attention just because it's his latest project. The question is, how much longer will he maintain his prestige status. His two prior films, “Fight Club” (1999) and “Panic Room” (2002) reveal a growing pre-occupation with unmotivated camera trickery and overuse of gimmicky CGI. The good news is, his latest, the modern historical serial killer tale “Zodiac”, eases up in those two departments. Not enough to save it, but it does ease up. Which brings us to the bad news: Fincher's storytelling prowess seems to have completely deteriorated. “Zodiac”, clocking in at a whopping 158 minutes, may be the biggest, longest Hollywood snooze-fest since the theatrical run of Oliver Stone's “Alexander”.
Length isn't the root problem of “Zodiac”. Certainly some of the greatest films ever made dwarf this one in length. The problem is that the filmmakers are so clearly intent to create a detailed and historically accurate account of the reign of the mysterious Zodiac killer in late sixties/early seventies San Francisco, that they forgot some crucial elements, like building up interesting and/or likeable characters, and a storyline that amounts to anything. Structurally, “Zodiac” begins as a newspaper movie, then transforms into a cop movie, and finally ending with an obsessed individual's quest to crack the case. The first portion spotlights Robert Downey Jr's out-of-place over-the-top San Francisco Chronicle reporter as he details the killer's attempts to manipulate the mass media with his bizarre string of coded messages and muffled phone calls. After about an hour of that, which spans several years on screen, Mark Ruffalo takes over as a hardened homicide cop on the killer's trail. More time passes. This truly inconsequential segment runs out of steam after forty-five minutes or so, leaving Jake Gyllenhaal's quiet newspaper cartoonist to figure things out. We watch as his obsession grows to nearly Richard Dreyfuss “Close Encounters” proportions, as he chases dried up leads, and finds a few ones. This final segment spans almost to modern day, culminating with his having written a book about the experience. With any and all due respect, whooptie doo.
I get the impression that the hook of this film, beyond the obvious fascination with homicide cases that everyone seems to have, is that it's the real-life, honest-to-gosh true story. There aren't ever any clear answers, as all the names, dates, and places are thrown around between the various players. Things meander to deathly stillness, until finally culminating in a narrative shrug. There are a handful of solid, suspenseful scenes, but they cannot salvage the overall film, which is a great big expensive, pointless bore.
Although lots and lots of money was spent on period detail, Fincher seems to have been overly careful not to rely on music cues and pop culture references to establish the time period. That discipline is probably to his credit, but quite frankly, a little of those devices may've livened things up. There's a good reason movie conventions exist, and that's because reality simply doesn't lend itself to cohesive and compelling storytelling very often. One of the few pop culture references is to Don Siegel's “Dirty Harry”, itself a fictionalized wish-fulfillment violent wrap-up to the Zodiac killer case created at its real-life fever pitch. Maybe the idea of Clint Eastwood's badboy cop going rogue and shooting the killer dead in the name of justice has now become a cliché, but like it or not, “Dirty Harry” is a modern classic, whereas “Zodiac” will only be a footnote on Fincher's filmography.
It's been close to five years since Fincher has directed. It really is disappointing that this monumental undertaking went as wrong as it did. Even the actors seem bored, with the exception of Robert Downey Jr, who is so far out of place with his forced quirkiness, he could be mistaken for Nicolas Cage. The few fancy camera shots and CGI recreations of early 1970s San Francisco stand out like sore thumbs in a movie that is trying so hard to be real. (It is also an obvious love letter to the city, if that does anything for you.) All the time and effort put into this would've been better suited to creating a documentary from the same story outline. Perhaps people who go to the movies in search of historical insights will find some value in “Zodiac”, but for those of us who have been patiently waiting for Fincher to return to his glory days, that wait will have to continue. Let's just hope his future films are better, so that the term “Fincheresque” doesn't take one a new meaning, one synonymous with cinematic exercises in pointlessness.
- Jim Tudor