Zodiac REVIEW

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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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

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Andy T.March 3, 2007 5:55 AM

While it might not have the normal tight narrative, I think this is one of the best of 2007. It has prompted me to buy Graysmith's books and see this, what you call, snooze-fest again. The film is not about ZODIAC, but more about the obsession of the killer or the unknown. It's really hard for me to take these Genre website reviews seriously. Having seen the film and having a high regard for it, it seems like this website and Dread Central are really looking for the horror element too hard. But then again, what do you expect...these are Genre Websites.

Grammar naziMarch 3, 2007 5:58 AM

"David Fincher has managed to become one of the few modern directors worthy of having his last name made into a verb."
You really weren't finchering when they taught parts of speech.

GarthMarch 3, 2007 6:27 AM

Well, I've been trying to avoid spoilers, so I've just been reading beginnings and endings of reviews. I don't know about this review, but the Dread Central one seems to condemn it for not being Seven 2, which is absurd.

crazybeeMarch 3, 2007 8:00 AM

The movie is excellent. Definitely going to check out the book now.
It's hard to take this review seriously when the guy calls The Game and Fight Club "above average." If these are ABOVE average, what's great? Fincher made 3 of the best thrillers of the 90s, for crying out loud. The CG stuck out? Well, it is obviously CG. It had to be. But god dammit, those shots were incredible.

And it's no snooze-fest. I was absolutely enthralled throughout.

conbarbaMarch 3, 2007 8:16 AM

Funny, this review is exactly the negative mirror of my opinion.

Jim TudorMarch 3, 2007 12:58 PM

I'm getting hit on all the points I pretty much expected to get hit on. I almost threw in the fact that Fincher is to many a director who can do no wrong, but that point was going to be made here on its own. Sheesh. Here we go:

I never wanted "Se7en 2", I only wanted a better movie than this was. Nor have I ever been to or heard of Dread Central, so I can't comment on the similarities. Believe it or not, I don't prowl "genre websites" much. I should look at this one more than I do, in all honesty.

You got me on the verb thing - that fell through the cracks of my self-imposed proof-reading process. Now, if you can explain why it actually wasn't a mistake, you get the official Twitch no-prize! ;)
"Fight Club" and "The Game" are both good movies with valuable things to say. My point is that they are not in the pantheon of great films like "GoodFellas" or "Citizen Kane". "Se7en", dare I say, is. "Fight Club" is the Fincher movie that I think "Zodiac" most closely resembles, for what that's worth. It's a structural simularity at best, though.

The thing about "Fight Club" is that it didn't achieve the status of modern classic until after the big fancy DVD in 2000. It was one of the first mind-blowing extras-loaded DVD sets, complete with multiple commentaries by nearly all the keys involved. In its theatrical run, "Fight Club" was a financial disappointment for whatever reason. I saw it in a mostly empty theater in it's openning week. It was not a popular film. Only when they kept telling us over and over again on the DVD commentaries & extras that "Fight Club" isn't just an overlooked innovative film, it was a modern classic, on the level of "The Graduate" did the ground-swell occur. I maintain that a self-fulfilling prophecy was concocted and fulfilled. The greatest strengths of the movie lie mainly with the ideas it puts forth, which stem from the source novel. It's an absolute above average film, but let's not get carried away is all I'm saying. That said, I perfer "The Game" over it, a film that is held down a little bit by it's ridiculous premise.

Both those movies are easily better than "Zodiac". "Zodiac" has a handful of really good scenes, but they are lost in long haul.
All that said, I probably over-sold the importance of "Dirty Harry" in the review.

That's my opinion, anyway. If you really liked "Zodiac", then great. And wait a minute - this movie just openned today - how the bleep did you guys see it already? Are all the commentors also attending early press screenings?
So there you go. I'm bad-mouthing a Fincher movie, AND I said "Fincheresque" was a verb, so that is conclusive proof that I am a moron. Enjoy the killings, everyone!

CaterpillarMarch 3, 2007 4:48 PM

Fincher can do plenty wrong. ALIEN 3, while having a number of absolutely great scenes, is a mess and an interesting failure at best. THE GAME is one-note and doesn't have anything to offer on repeat viewings. PANIC ROOM is all style over substance and frankly an embarrassment. I really only consider SEVEN and FIGHT CLUB to be masterpieces. As for the latter not being an instant classic upon its theatrical release, I'd like to remind you that countless films we now regard as classics have done poorly or outright bombed at the box office. Since when does a high total gross equal a good film? The worst kind of garbage is constantly topping the box office and surely, hopefully, nobody will ever call NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM a classic of anything. That having been said, I haven't been able to watch FIGHT CLUB in years thanks to all the emo/hipster kids constantly droning on about how great it is.

Andy TMarch 3, 2007 5:52 PM

I saw it at a press/advance screening Tuesday night. I have officially bought the 2 Graysmith books because of it. FIGHT CLUB, I think, is more of a masterpiece than Se7en. While Se7en has redefined the look & feel of serial killer films, Fight Club is a statement about consumerism & identity. Palahniuk's book is great, but the film is wonderful. I never got a chance to see it during it's theatrical run due to the limited time it was at my local theatre. I caught it on VHS before that DVD came out and fell in love.

Like Kurt said above, I think you just didn't get yourself wrapped up in it. It's a film that you need to absorb everything and let yourself go.

arch stantonMarch 3, 2007 10:18 PM

THE WIZARD OF OZ was not a huge success during it's theatrical run. It only became popular after it started playing on TV over 30 years later. Would anyone say it's not a classic because it didn't do well at the theater. The same for IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, huge financial failure at the B.O., now an undeniable classic after years of TV exposure, no extras loaded DVD made it popular.The first TERMINATOR didn't tear up the box office either and only struck after it came out on video but are telling me that one isn't a classic of it's genre because initial audiences didn't flock to it.

Saying FIGHT CLUB only got notice because of a jam packed DVD and implying it's value as a film is in relation to first run audience acceptance and therefore isn't a classic because you don't think it is, is ridiculous. Time, as always, will tell if something is a classic.

KurtMarch 4, 2007 12:17 AM

Add my voice to the choir that THE GAME was overrated crap.
And Terry Rawling's reconstruction of Fincher's shooting script of Alien3 makes the film come very close to masterpiece.

I'd currently put ZODIAC behind FIGHT CLUB in terms of quality on Fincher's Resume (FC is easily his best film), with SEVEN very close to it. And Alien3 just behind that.

DarkmanPoeMarch 4, 2007 3:34 AM

That was the longest episode of "Law & Order" I've ever seen. Certainly not a bad film, but...I have no desire to see it again.

mike rotMarch 4, 2007 5:03 AM

I wrote a little review of Zodiac in the forum, so I will be brief here. I did want to add my voice to chorus in saying that Zodiac a really good film if you are on the right wavelength. I do think there is some miscommunication in how it is packaged to the film-going audience, that this was supposed to be Se7en 2, which is unfortunate. If you can overcome that sort of expectation and treat it as something comparable even to Stone's JFK in its documentarian interest in historical footnotes of murder cases, treat it as a true-crime whodunit, you will likely take more from it.
There are flaws and I can sort of see where you are coming from Jim, it is not a tight script, it almost reminds me of 'The Departed' with respects to its loose meandering... but I happen to enjoy The Departed for the same reason. As Kurt said, it is a nice film to get lost in.

I have become inspired to finally see Manhunter, going to check it out, see what it adds to the genre.

phillipMarch 11, 2007 11:40 AM

i thought the movie was very well done, and i think what i liked most was that it was not some gorefest. everything about the movie was on target. casting was great, wardrobe, the night scene where the police were at the corner of washington and cherry was great. it was just a solid piece of work. i highly recommend the movie.

Michael ButterfieldMarch 16, 2007 10:48 PM

Robert Graysmith's books ZODIAC and ZODIAC UNMASKED served as the basis for David Fincher's ZODIAC. Anyone who went to see the movie and was inspired to buy Graysmith's books may want to request a refund. While these books are kept in the nonfiction section of your local bookstore, Graysmith's version of the story is easily discredited by the actual police reports, FBI files, other official documents, interviews with those involved in the case, and independent research. Visit http://www.zodiackillerfacts.com/graysmith.htm to read an update of my 2003 article, GRAYSMITH UNMASKED.

Those who are looking to separate fact from fiction, and learn the truth behind the headlines and Hollywood hype, are encouraged to visit my website - zodiackillerfacts.com - to learn more about the many myths and theories surrounding this incredible series of still-unsolved crimes. Also included: an examination of the prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen and other men named as the notorious killer; a summary of the case from 1968 to today; an update on a lost 1990 Christmas card that could prove the killer was still communicating 16 years after his last known appearance in 1974.
I am freelance artist and writer who has followed the Zodiac story since 1983 and conducted extensive research since 1991. As a recognized expert on the Zodiac case, I have served as a media source and consultant for news articles, television documentaries and feature films, including David Fincher's ZODIAC, and have appeared on episodes of COLD CASE FILES on the A&E;Network and CASE REOPENED for The Learning Channel, currently airing on various cable networks. My book about the decades-long story of the Zodiac killer and his ongoing legacy will be available later this year.
A memorable quote from the classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, reads, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
While the legend of the Zodiac killer becomes fact, the truth behind the headlines is online at ZodiacKillerFacts.com.
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