Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Five Years Ago: Zodiac

Ah, to be young again.

Five years ago tomorrow, David Fincher’s Zodiac hit theaters. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, but my anxiety over the increasingly rapid passage of years is dwarfed by my jealousy that just 2 months and 1 day into 2007, moviegoers were treated to what would end up being one of the year’s best films, if not the best. They had a spring to talk about it, half of a summer to revisit it on DVD, and an entire awards season to compare its merits to those of No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Atonement, and Fred Claus.

Zodiac ended up being a total non-factor in that awards season, but I would have expected the long year to actually help its chances. When I walked out of the theater into a brisk Brooklyn night, I didn’t love the epic tale of three men who pursued the Zodiac Killer in 1970s California. I liked it a lot. I marveled at a crime movie with far more painstaking police work than action or suspense that still kept me pinned to me my seat for 157 minutes. I celebrated the top-notch performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. I relished the ominous foggy chill of San Francisco, which somehow left me both calm and anxious. But I didn’t love it until later on. It’s a movie that stays with you, one that needs to be absorbed to be fully appreciated.

It was also a non-factor at the box office, eking out $37 million domestically, almost a full $100 million less than Fincher’s previous effort Panic Room. It’s easy to see what the public at large found so disagreeable. First and foremost, there’s simply something unsatisfying about the story. [40 year old spoiler alert!] The killer isn’t caught. The murders aren’t solved. And the heroes are anything but victorious. It’s a dry movie, largely eschewing Fincher’s trademark visual panache. Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides intended to “make it look mundane enough for people to accept that what they’re watching is the truth.” They also refused to sensationalize the murders. Fincher goes on to say they “didn’t want to make the sort of movie that serial killers would want to own.” Unfortunately, it seems not many people wanted to own it period.

To criticize Zodiac for lack of closure or focusing too heavily on investigators trying to make the pieces fit is to completely miss the point. Zodiac is about the search for answers, not getting the answers. And not in some hokey “the journey is more important than the destination” way. It’s about people who feel compelled to solve puzzles, who can’t stop picking at the scab because they know that no matter what they do, it’s never going to completely heal.

James Vanderbilt’s screenplay, based on the book by Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal’s character) as well as extensive independent research by the filmmakers, creates a trilogy of tragedies all in one movie, with each hero falling in turn. Fincher turned it into a masterpiece of procedural fiction. He’d already made other great movies in Seven and Fight Club, but those were much more exciting on paper. Zodiac, to me, is the purest representation of Fincher’s aptitude for storytelling, and it’s one of the reasons I never scoffed at the prospect of a Fincher movie about some guys who created a popular website.

Three Men and Arthur

In 2012, Zodiac stands out as Fincher’s most under-appreciated work. It doesn’t have the popularity of Seven, the pop culture significance of Fight Club, or the universal critical approval of The Social Network. But its belonging in the same category is a mathematical fact. His movies can easily be divided into two categories. There’s the essential Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network). And before and after each one of those, he’s made far less significant films, consisting of genre jaunts (Alien 3, The Game, Panic Room) and films which I am either dismissive or derisive of depending on my mood (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). If we chart a qualitative trajectory through Fincher’s filmography, it’s an unwavering down-up-down-up.

There’s no accounting for taste, but both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic support my opinion. By their measure, the four essential movies all rest on a peak above the films Fincher made before and after. All the “good” movies have a Fresh rating over 80 on Rotten Tomatoes, and none of the “bad” movies do, except for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s his third best movie using either site, behind The Social Network and Zodiac. But since it comes after Social Network, it’s still a drop-off. For my “every other movie” theory to maintain statistical support, I need the critics to really love whatever he does next.

This theory also presents us with a great example of art and commerce mixing about as well as two things that don’t mix well at all. Looking at the box office take of Fincher’s films produces a very clear up and down pattern, just like the quality graph, only inverted. According to Box Office Mojo, all the “good” movies rest in a valley between the “bad” movies surrounding them. The only exception is Seven, which is Fincher’s greatest box office success.

So what is this next great project that Fincher will wow us with? No one knows. It could very well be a self-described PG-13 tent-pole summer movie version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Or maybe a Cleopatra project with Angelina Jolie. Or any number of other projects all based on existing sci-fi and/or comic book properties. If whatever he directs of the Kevin Spacey cult drama series House of Cards is really awesome, I’ll be happy to count that for the sake of my theory. Frankly, none of them sound like something that’s going to blow me away. Then again I didn’t necessarily expect that much out of Zodiac, and five years later I’m still in awe. Fincher’s pattern may be predictable, but his films rarely are.

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