Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Zodiac" -- * * * *

David Fincher’s "Zodiac" is an absolute masterpiece, the first truly great movie of 2007, and one that’s going to have a tough time finding (or at least sustaining) a sizable audience. Rather than a "Seven"-esque serial killer thrill-ride, "Zodiac" is a fascinating 2-hour and 40-minute police procedural jam-packed with information, that’s mainly about the frustration of finding answers in a case that simply didn’t offer any (the Zodiac murders were never solved).

It was fascinating to watch the audience at my screening react based on the conditioning they’ve had to standard serial killer movies. At one point in the movie, someone opens the door to enter Jake Gyllenhaal’s house, and the women behind me loudly whispered "It’s the Zodiac!" Also, some were clearly disappointed when the film ended without a typical catch-the-killer finale.
However, despite the lack of a conventionally satisfying conclusion, "Zodiac" is more satisfying in what it sets out to do and what it achieves than any movie about a homeless father overcoming obstacles through the power of money possibly could be. It’s a film about the open-endedness of things and how the lack of catharsis can eat away at one’s soul. Never has a film’s tagline, "there’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer," been more apropos.

"Zodiac" is based on two best-selling books by Robert Graysmith, "Zodiac" and "Zodiac Unmasked: The Identity of America’s Most Elusive Serial Killer Revealed," which were first-hand accounts about the futile hunt for the Zodiac killer who preyed upon residents of the San Francisco area in 1968 and 1969.
The film follows four men who alternately hunted on the Zodiac before giving up and relinquishing the obsession to the next man: San Francisco detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his low-key partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), a San Francisco Chronicle reporter with increasing drug and alcohol problems Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and lastly, Chronicle cartoonist and eventual author of the Zodiac books, Graysmith (Gyllenhaal).

We’re only shown a handful of (incredibly chilling and bluntly violent) scenes depicting the Zodiac striking, but they hang over the rest of the movie never letting us feel relaxed, even when the scene is just of two guys talking in an office. And boy, is there a lot of talking. Much of the film is made up of discussion of the incessantly frustrating hints and clues that gather as the case moves along; for every one that seems to advance the case, there’s one that undoes the last. It’s a testament to the filmmaking that despite not much conventional "action," the movie’s never boring.

I will admit, it does feel long, but that’s due to the breadth of scope and amount of information packed in, rather than any sort of dullness or dwindling interest. For fans of police procedurals, exquisite filmmaking or any such things, you should be first in line. But those looking for an adrenaline rush or a mind-blowing ending should be warned that "Zodiac" just isn’t that movie.
Gyllenhaal (who I’m not a fan of) does good work here, never seeming as though he’s "acting," but the best of show prize goes to Downey, who exhilarates or amuses whenever he’s on screen, without ever descending into "showy." Ruffalo is also excellent here, finally giving us a different kind of performance from him rather than the mumbling, good-looking loser (or romantic lead) he plays in every movie.

However, the real reason to see "Zodiac" is Fincher. While I can’t quite say it’s my favorite film of his (I’m still partial to "Seven" and "Fight Club"—sentimental value), this is clearly his most accomplished work and his first one where he really blew me away without resorting to his typical high-style and camera tricks. The film really feels like a ‘70s movie of the highest order, and that’s certainly a good thing. It’s a shame Paramount elected to open in March, since it really has potential to go over well with critics groups and certain end-of-the-year voting bodies (if not the clueless Academy).

"Zodiac" is the rare movie that can really be considered a work of art, as well as the most vital, thrilling piece of cinema in many a month. If your brain (and your butt) can withstand it, it shouldn’t be missed. I haven't been able to get it out of my head since I saw it last night, and in fact, I'm on my way out now to see it again.


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1:53 PM  

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