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Step by step, shot by shot, cut by cut
A film review of ZODIAC by Camus
"If an actor is going to let the role come to them,
they can't resent the fact that I'm willing to wait
as long as that takes. You know, the first day of
production in San Francisco we shot 56 takes
of Mark and Jake – and it's the 56th take
that's in the movie."
David Fincher, perfectionist, and Kubrick-esque, multi-take director


I know several industry professionals who scoff at any director that needs more than ten to fifteen takes with a well rehearsed cast and a good crew. Yes, one can readily appreciate Steven Spielberg's need for over seventy takes of Bruce the shark smashing through the window of a half submerged Orca while a very wet and exhausted Roy Scheider rams an oxygen tank into its mouth... seventy times. Bruce was hardly Anthony Hopkins when it came to stagecraft. There are no animatronic sharks in Fincher's meticulously detailed Zodiac and like its star Jake Darko (I can't even read or pronounce Gyllenhaal) I am at a loss to discover what tiny subtleties in performance are different from one take to the next. Is there a mystical dimension that nestles in a director's imagination, one where his/her movie resides and the actors have to match this vision almost, one might say, absolutely? Then again, you have to admire the balls. Multi-taking directors like Fincher and Kubrick could be winding us all up... not if their films are evidence against, they're not. These are film-makers of rare talent and are deserving of the time and effort afforded them. Let them shoot take... after take, after take, after take...

You know those movies in your life? The ones you can revisit time and time again and still retain an echo of the experience you had when they first knocked you out? Sometimes repeated viewings actually encourage fresh ideas to the forefront of your mind. That certainly happens if the feature has been written with care and directed with real passion. Curiously, my favoured twenty or so are a mixed bag ranging from out and out classics to dumb actioners all the way around to rom-coms. For fear of violent ejection from this site's contributors' list, I will not name any save one of these films (my street credibility will become avenue angst if you know what's number eight on my list). I will proudly say that, publicly, the chosen one is Alan J. Pakula's All The President's Men. There is nothing in that movie (nothing) that qualifies it as a moving as in 'in motion' picture. The spine and various ribs of the piece are conversations, simple conversations between people, not an explosion in sight. There is no 'action' per se. It's two guys slogging forward because they have grasped a small trace of fibre that when pulled at the right time will unravel the entire US government. How Pakula managed to make a taut as taut-can-be thriller is down to riveting historical fact, sympathetic, unfussy direction, clever structural plotting and earnest performances. Let's not forget the dynamic slow burn of the screenplay, initially written and subsequently disowned by scriptwriter William Goldman after his producer (Redford) went behind his back and hired the real Woodward and Bernstein to draft a – in places – fictitious script. I don't know why this movie is so exciting to me but I'm not its only rabid fan.

David Fincher should be well known to anyone reading anything on a movie site with the word 'outsider' in the URL. It's true that we've yet to review one of his movies here (if he insists on taking so much time between projects... Zodiac is our first) but I have to say that (1) I was utterly floored by Fight Club (the only 'Hollywood' movie in the last decade to truly blow my socks off), (2) I reviewed Alien 3 positively (just for my own amusement but I really did like it), (3) I loved The Game despite the ending's slight implausibilities and (4) still champion Se7en despite being regarded by my nearest and dearest as a sick whacko because I have seen the movie many, many times. (5) I saw Panic Room as more of a technical exercise (it was OK but not a genuine Fincher movie in my eyes, more like marking time and having some fun with animating coffee pot pixels). Fincher is one of 'those' directors, a person who takes his job very seriously and produces meticulous work whether it's portraying a man's life unravelling or in this case, several men's lives un-spooling like dropped film reels on the hunt for a serial killer.

Few signature Fincher moments are present and correct. There are graphics (of the serial killer's coded letters) splayed out on police station's walls as the actors move through them like the Ikea nesting instinct scene in Fight Club. The digital interludes and scene settings are so indistinguishable from reality that it's folly for me to even suggest that they must have been shot in the past on a camera from the future (the all-digital Viper, a camera sans film, sans tape). The digital effects are flawless and there are over 200 shots digitally enhanced in the movie. Try as you might, you will not find one photographically unreal pixel in the lot. What is starkly noticeable is Fincher's visual style that seems to have not so much settled down as taken out a mortgage – pray the pipe and slippers are not the next step. He was once quoted as saying that there were probably only two ways to shoot a scene... and " of them was wrong." Fincher seems to have grown up in the blink of a Viper's eye. He's now visually quoting the major directors, (the Fords and Hitchcocks) anti-flaunting and teasing out his own 'invisible technique'. To help secure the facts of the real police cases he's dramatising, Fincher felt it necessary not to embroider the action with directorial flourishes. The mundanity of the staging gives credence to the facts of the tale. Which is fine! Except when it really isn't...

Yes, the style may respect the truth he's telling but in so doing, Zodiac becomes little more than a very standard police procedural (oh, it hurts me saying this), one that stands or falls on the interest you have in the real case and the believability of the actors. Fincher is simply not at home despite some very obvious stylistic tics – I smiled at the two very 70s logos at the start of the movie, all scratches in place. Despite his small, wry, casual remark on the Fight Club DVD ("if we can only find a way of doing without the actors..."), Fincher is extremely adept at getting great performances from his overworked, overtaken thespians. The performances in Zodiac are very convincing and the case (a decade plus hunt for a serial killer who terrorised San Francisco in the 70s) does have its moments.

If his directorial skill and overwhelming stylistics do peek out with a "Boo!", it's in the violence. The casual and mundane bloodletting in Zodiac (three serial killer killing moments on screen) is as straightforward and horrific as you can imagine. I was primed for their in-your-face nature but each of the kills has that same nail biting intensity that so saturated the first five minutes of Cronenberg's History of Violence. The double stabbing is terrifying because of the extraordinarily effective reactions, not the viewing of the blade penetrations themselves. It was the first time in a cinema, I completely imagined what it must be like being repeatedly stabbed. Utterly horrific. Utterly terrifying.

The case sparks the interest of San Francisco Chronicle reporter, Paul Avery, played with an amiable, spaced out wiriness by the master of amiable, space out wiriness, Robert Downey Jnr. Downey is fascinated by a colleague's grasp and enthusiasm for puzzles, the staff cartoonist played by Gyllenhaal. The two men are drawn to open up to the Zodiac killer and over many years allow their lives to be poisoned by his morbidity and fear-mongering and talent for staying at large. Clues come and go and the actual police procedural is conducted by the detective whom Steve McQueen cited as a model for his character Frank Bullit in, er, Bullit. Mark Ruffalo plays Detective Toschi with a rogue determination that makes him the most human copper this side of Sergeant Dixon. If you don't know who that is then it's OK. Some history can stay in the past. There is a sense in all of Ruffalo's scenes that what you are watching is the real deal. This is police work in all of its frustration, difficulty and minutiae – all of which are appreciated within the movie – and none of the Martin Riggs mega-stunts. It's about time a policeman was a human being on screen.

Ruffalo's partner is sensitively played by Anthony Edwards (so good not to see him embarrass himself as he did as Thunderbirds' stutterer Brains). The lesser driven of the pair of detectives, he is worn down by the chase/case and as the years drag on, he is yanked back from the brink allowing his family to take precedence over the relentless search for the killer. The reporter and detective that stay magnetically attached to the Zodiac nursing a great obsession to reveal this man and lock him up are further galvanised by Gyllenhaal's cartoonist whose life falls apart while he pores over case files and newspaper cuttings pulling the kids in as researchers. The movie is based on the cartoonist's two published books on the Zodiac and to be fair to the material (a wealth would be a relevant adjective), a two and a half hour movie was never going to do the cases justice. But Fincher's narrative is still sure footed as the details are scattered before us like widely strewn jigsaw pieces. The director's command of his story is absolute (structurally the film doesn't drag or demand the viewer's IQ to be measured in hat sizes). You have to be on the ball. But there's still that awful word I used earlier; 'standard' and it's haunting this review.

I used to resent getting school reports with the word 'satisfactory' on them. It felt demeaning, worthless. I was of the school that you either noticed me or hated me. I wanted to be thrown out of my maths class or revered as a Hawking (such naiveté). Disinterest was not an option. And so I find myself at the feet of a director whose latest film drew admiration but not effervescent praise. Zodiac does what it does with intricate care and startling moments of 'wow!'. It's a work of intelligence and passion with astounding attention to detail.

But for me, Zodiac's story (movie-wise) never truly warrants the lavish attention and care spent on it. I hang my head but that's my take (my first take) on David Fincher's contemplative procedural. I'm curious about what's next...


USA 2007
158 mins
David Fincher
Ceán Chaffin
Brad Fischer
Mike Medavoy
Arnold Messer
James Vanderbilt
James Vanderbilt
from the book by
Robert Graysmith
Harris Savides
Angus Wall
David Shire
production design
Donald Graham Burt
Jake Gyllenhaal
Mark Ruffalo
Anthony Edwards
Robert Downey Jr.
Brian Cox
John Carroll Lynch
Richmond Arquette
review posted
24 May 2007