Friday, May 18, 2007

ZODIAC - frustrating on purpose...?

In the late 1960s a serial killer shot and stabbed random people in the San Francisco area. He then sent letters and encripted messages to newspapers and police departments taunting them to catch him. The self-appointed Zodiac killer was a fan of publicity. He must have been pleased to see himself portrayed in DIRTY HARRY. He may well have appropriated murders that weren't his own to boost his twisted kudos. The police didn't solve the murders but a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle started an ad hoc investigation that resulted in a paperback book. He posits a theory as to the killer, but a quick google search will show you that there are still several theories as to who committed the crimes.

All of which brings us to the central problem: how can a director film gather together the fragments of a serial killer story with no resolution and fashion an engaging linear narrative? David Fincher addresses this problem byruthlessly organises his material into three acts, signposted clearly with timelines, and by throwing people who absolutely need to have closure a bone.

The first third of the movie is the most like a conventional serial killer flick. Victims are off'ed in tense tableaux;
cryptic letters are sent into the newsroom; and the cops and reporters go through their procedures. In the second act, fatigue and frustration sets in. The only real suspect is cleared; the cops are moved onto other cases and the lead journo gets the sack. Even the Zodiac himself seems fatigued: the killing and the letters stop. It's a stand-off. At this point, even the viewer might feel frustrated and tired of the story - I gave Fincher the benefit of the doubt and decided that this was a deliberate attempt to have us empathise with the bewildering...slipperiness of the case. If this really is Fincher's aim, I think it's rather brave in facing the difficulty of filming the case head-on.

The final act puts us back into classic Fincher territory. The newspaper cartoonist picks up where the coppers left off and starts tracking down old witnesses and suspects. There is almost unbearably tense confrontation with a suspected murderer in a basement and a final confrontation with the suspect he chooses to believe is the Zodiac. The ending of the film is, however, slippery indeed. On one level, the viewers have been presented with a hypothesis as to the killer's identity and the text at the end of the film suggests that we should walk out of the theatre happy that the whodunnit has been solved. But there are too many important threads left hanging - and at least two very strong suspects still out there. So, the viewer can choose to leave the film unsatisfied and frustrated - having truly experienced the manifold evasions of the Zodiac. Clever stuff.

So right about now, you know that I found this movie to be frustrating but strangely gripping nonetheless. It's also worth pointing out that in terms of pure cinematic technique, this is a must-watch movie. The production design and visual style of the film is mesmerising. It's all warm claustrophobic browns and greens. Often-times, the camera seems to record an atomsphere - an oppression - rather than document movement. (Perhaps this is just me reading the lack of progress with the case onto the film.) ZODIAC is also pioneering in that it's the first feature film in which the entire shooting process took place without film OR video but completely digitally. In other words, the images were shot with digital cameras and the data was sent to directly through cables to the editorial suite. The images were backed up digitally and loaded into the Apple FinalCut Pro programme for editing. The hard drives were then reused. In other words, the only time the film was put on video or celluloid was for distribution to conventional theatres. Truly a feat.

Set against this, the casting is sometimes weak, othertimes under-used. Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are serviceable as the two investigating cops, but their motivations are unclear. In particular, it is not clear why the latter should drop the case in favour of a normal life. It's also not clear why a hitherto down-to-earth honest cop could have become so mesmerised by fame as to have faked fan letters to Amistead Maupin, leaving him open to accusations of faking Zodiac letters. Elias Koteas and James Le Gros are just fine in cameo supporting roles as provincial cops but I couldn't help feeling that more could've been made of the Brian Cox role. Cox plays a famous pyschologist who is called by the Zodiac live on air. The film-makers start to investigate the corrosive relationship between fame and crime, but leave that strand hanging.

Robert Downey Junior chooses to play his role as a brilliant but strung out investigative reporter by swallowing half his words and becoming no more than a handful of physical ticks. I remain to be convinced that Jake Gyllenhaal can act as opposed to look put-upon. And that's a major problem because when Downey Junior's character fades into alcoholism and the cops get reassigned it's Jake's character who fills the screen. He plays the boy scout-cartoonist turned investigator who runs around the Bay area like one of the kids from Scooby Doo, reading old files, re-interviewing suspects and generally running great risks. Moreover, in a two and half hour film spanning twenty odd years Gyllenhaal neither alters his physical presence nor gives a satisfying account of why such a "boy scout" would become so obsessed with a serial killer.

Still, it's a testament to the fascination of the case and the virtuosity of the production that ZODIAC remains a gripping and memorable thriller.

ZODIAC was released in Canada and the US in March and played Cannes 2007. It is currently playing in France, Argentina, Australia, Denmark, Egypt, Israel, New Zealand, Serbia, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey and the UK. It opens in Slovenia and Finland on May 24th, in the Philippines, Germany, Singapore, Brazil and Estonia on the weekend of May 31st. It opens in Belgium on June 6th, in Hungary on June 7th, Latvia on Juune 8th, Japan on June 16th, Hong Kong on June 21st and Russia on August 2nd.

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