Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher | 2hr 37min

While political cartoonist Robert Graysmith spends years digging into the details of the Zodiac murders across the west coast of 1960s and 70s America, we find David Fincher using Graysmith himself to conduct his own intensive examination of human obsession. How curious it is that the author of these accounts upon which this film is based becomes Fincher’s subject of scrutiny, his characteristic nuances and flaws often foregrounded over his book’s thrilling subject matter. While this true crime procedural moves at a steady, purposeful pace through all two and a half hours of its run time, leaving us to piece together loose tiles of an enigmatic puzzle with no fixed resolution, Graysmith is the real source of fascination at its centre, enslaved by his own compulsive desire for truth even as the world around him loses interest.

This fastidiousness is a trait echoed across both character and director, as Fincher similarly fixates on the details of the Zodiac killer investigation as a means to understand the mentality of Graysmith. The ambidexterity of one key suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, is hammered home as a potentially significant piece of evidence, as is his Zodiac branded wristwatch, and even when many of these details amount to little more than circumstantial, Fincher continues to remain glued to each new revelation. Just as Graysmith remains patient and willing to accept that such obsessiveness may not herald the answers or justice he desires, so too does Fincher revel in the journey of speculation and discovery, drawing narrative comparisons with All the President’s Men in his paranoid, fussy handling of this historical journalistic investigation.

Beyond his perfect plotting and pacing, Fincher finds these small moments to showcase some flourishes of editing, here transposing the words of the Zodiac killer over a montage as the murders dominate national news.

Patience and deep concentration are qualities built into the very fabric of this narrative, carrying us along in Graysmith’s compulsive drive while keeping us at enough of a remove to recognise how these same traits are echoed in the criminal he is so doggedly pursuing. Each time we hear the Zodiac killer speak, it is from a different voice so as to throw us off any distinct identity, though his personality emerges clearly in his eerie letters and phone calls speaking of a haunted, troubled mind, plagued by urges he cannot escape. Remarkable form in characterisation is thus drawn between hero and villain, two men who fall victim to their own psychological impulses, and at least one of whom loses everything because of it. Though Graysmith’s passion may have attracted his future wife on their first date, it also becomes the cause for the disintegration of their marriage. While his associates are driven to exhaustion and substance abuse over the investigation, he remains persistently focused. Over the years his apartment turns into a cluttered study of boxes and papers, and Fincher sends a haggard Jake Gyllenhaal running through rainy streets at night in desperation, tying Graysmith’s physicality and environment to his own restless, obstinate mentality.

Rows upon rows of fluorescent lights captured from low angles – a Wellesian influence in this otherwise Pakula-inspired procedural.
It isn’t just the newsroom. Fincher’s gorgeous yellow lighting is present all through Zodiac, particularly in Graysmith’s cluttered apartment-turned-study, forming a portrait of paranoia and obsession.

Such visual prowess continues to reveal itself in Fincher’s magnificent depth of field all throughout Zodiac, keeping every detail of this mustard-yellow period setting in crisp, sharp focus. Within the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom, slightly lowered camera angles turn the rows of yellow fluorescent lights into distinctive backgrounds against which the mysteries of the Zodiac letters unfold, while the journalists themselves are blocked across layers of the frame. Fincher’s trademark yellow lighting makes an especially atmospheric impact here in its bright, clean radiance through corporate interiors, while shady homes, streets, and restaurants are dimly illuminated with soft amber glows, allowing an uncanny darkness to overtake scenes of paranoia and doubt.

Some of Fincher’s best direction of his a career is captured in this thrillingly tense sequence. One of the few scenes that uses shallow rather than deep focus, effectively isolating Graysmith. Also simply a perfect marriage of lighting, mise-en-scéne, editing, writing, and acting.

Calling Fincher a master of crafting tension may imply parallels to Alfred Hitchcock’s own sadistic fascinations, and yet there is something a little more ethereal about the suspense present here in Zodiac. Without an identifiable figure to pin these crimes to, Fincher’s evil is far more impressionistic than it is tangible, emerging just as much through his dingy, uncertain atmosphere is it does through its narrative. Such obscurity is made all the more frustrating by the pinpoint precision with which he attacks his plotting, cinematography, and characterisation, leaving us to question the productivity of such relentless obsession over impossible mysteries – and whether turning that intense focus inwards to our own humanity might bear a more fruitful life.

A consistent aesthetic captured all throughout – this is Fincher’s specialty and he has rarely been stronger than he is here.

Zodiac is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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