Strike two for David Fincher.
Seven was a phenomenal and twisted noir thriller and Fight Club was one of the seminal films of the 90s—a post-modern masterpiece. But something happened after those two gems. Panic Room didn’t suck, to be certain, but it was hardly a great film. And now we’re given Zodiac, marketed as a thriller though it has far more in common with All the President’s Men than Silence of the Lambs but with only a smidgen of the former’s tension and suspense.
I came to Zodiac with high hopes. After all, this was familiar territory for Fincher — grisly murders, a serial killer, police procedurals, obsessive cops. From the first few moments of the opening credits with the studio logos circa 1970, you can almost taste Fincher back at the helm. His distinctive style — wide, fluid tracking shots, characters wreathed in shadow, incessant rainfall — was in abundant supply.
The film starts with a bang. After randomly assassinating several young couples, a killer calling himself “The Zodiac” begins taunting the police by sending ciphered letters to the newspaper. Try as they might, the police can’t seem to get traction on the case. An intrepid and dogged reporter refuses to let it go, fighting government bureaucracy, office politics, familial disapproval, his own fear and the march of years to unravel the mystery one piece at a time. Zodiac showcases three terrific and hugely entertaining leads in Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. to say nothing of a slew of mesmerizing supporting players.
The problems with the film begin somewhere around the halfway point, when the Zodiac killer ceases his crimes. Though the characters continue in their obsessive quest for the truth, as the nearly three-hour film unfolds, the audience is not brought along for the ride. Zodiac cannot possible sustain its tension once the antagonist — and hence the conflict — vanishes. Zodiac is not about a murderer, but about a man obsessed with catching him. Though the film wants you to identify with the protagonist’s fixation, it becomes nearly impossible. Add to this fact that despite all this effort, there will ultimately be no resolution and it is not hard to pinpoint why Zodiac never gets off the ground. This film is an exercise in the absence of dramatics.
That the killer is never caught shouldn’t be a spoiler, though some people may not be aware of the well-publicized, based-on-a-true-story account. That a film plays with audience expectations and intentionally does not deliver on the supposed promise of its genre is to be praised. Yet it is not its lack of resolution that makes Zodiac a poor film, it is in its stupefying dull progression.
Zodiac covers nearly two decades (yet none of the primary characters seem to age), often jumping forward months and even years in a few minutes. We watch San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid transform itself from a huge hole in the ground in the beginning minutes to a monolithic sentinel by the film’s end. Each transition is heralded by a title card announcing the time and place. They occur so often that one almost ceases paying attention to them.
Obviously, Zodiac looked good on paper, but when fleshed out on the screen, it becomes just one more uninspired whodunit. The film opens by announcing it is based on actual case files. And if you want to know how exciting it was to read each and every one of them verbatim, watch this film.