Wednesday, January 23, 2008

ZODIAC: MOVIE REVIEW [Top 2007 - #1]

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, Chloë Sevigny, John Carroll Lynch, Anthony Edwards
Director: David Fincher
Runtime: 158 Min.
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Drama, Psychological, Historical

One knows it, doesn’t it, when a very special film is unfolding before the eyes. Watching Zodiac, I was reminded of that relic of investigative journalism All the President’s Men. And believe me, this is a film that will be spoken to of in the same breath, as I see it, for years to come. There is the same eye for detail on display, for police procedural, for journalism, and for sensational serial killing. And then I remembered, rather realized, the man behind this film is David Fincher and he probably must have intended the resemblance. I checked, and I was true. That is genius for you, and though some might disagree, he has finally arrived.
There have been beautiful films capturing the urgency of an on-going investigation (Manhunter, All the President’s Men) but most often, films based on the triviality of digging old graves (The Chamber) turn out to be damp affairs. There’s nothing profound there; on-going investigations naturally tend to be more energetic, more suspenseful and hence more entertaining. Of the numerous triumphs that I would credit Zodiac with, and there’re breathtakingly many, is the sublime manner in which it manages to be both and achieves the near impossible by engrossing us in the rush of an on-going investigation and the hush of yesterday’s news.
Fincher is the kind of genius, who turns something as trivial and formulaic as the dates and times down the bottom of the screens into devices that seem to have been invented for this very film. All by judicious usage. The same judicious way the infamous Zodiac killer, the modern incarnation of Jack the Ripper, accumulated a body count of at least five and boasted of several others. He still hasn’t been caught, and he most certainly never will be. The principal suspect Arthur Leigh is dead for over fifteen years, and some of the counties still have the investigation open, the San Francisco Police Department has officially closed the case. The details are all in Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac, from which the screenplay has been adapted, and it chronicles the entire journey of the case of the Zodiac killer, from his first murder on the 4th of July, 1969 to the 16th of August, 1991.
Yes, the film is indeed spread across a time frame of 22 years, and amongst its greatest achievements is the way it captures the passage of time. It is a thriller, it is a crime film, and obligatorily it needs to be engaging all the time. I hope you’re getting the insurmountability of the task in hand, and more than any film I’ve seen that have achieved it, Zodiac perfects it. More so than either The Shawshank Redemption and Goodfellas, just in case you’re craving for a frame of reference. Its structure, and the architectural aspect of it is a thing to marvel at. It is episodic, but strangely all its episodes feel like a part of a single episodic entity.
And during all that while, there’s a great deal of authenticity. It almost feels like a documentary, and yet, I would go as far as to state that no documentary could have captured so rich a detail and wrap it up under 158 minutes. The reason I’m so sure of it is because how the film manages, quite brilliantly, to capture the psychological impact of a case on the entire police force spread across numerous counties. As it says, there is more than one way to lose your life to a killer. The case was a labyrinth where almost every police officer involved, every journalist involved found themselves lost, constantly running into each other. Zodiac, yet again, achieves that paradox, by leading us through that maze, showing every bit of detail, leaving us stranded seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and when we end up we feel like them detectives having gone through the details, again and again. It doesn’t simply narrate the case; it engulfs, and overwhelms us with one. Zodiac is as close a film will ever get to being a documentary and in turn, a documentary couldn’t possibly reciprocate its gratitude to cinema in a better way.
To travel back and forth among a hoard of characters so that we never forget them requires inspired casting choices. Not a single character fails to leave a mark among undeniably the best ensemble performance of this year. Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., everybody give incredibly layered portrayals. Especially Mark Ruffalo, who with his little nuances, increasingly reminds me of Marlon Brando. He plays David Toschi, the super-cop on whom Steve McQueen based his Bullitt and Clint Eastwood inspired his Harry Callahan, and Ruffalo brilliantly assumes the same aura and self-righteousness that would accompany such a cop, a self-righteousness that has been earned and conferred. The crowning glory of Ruffalo’s performance is that he sidesteps landmines that typically find their way in the portrayal of this kind of character viz. the one-dimensional arrogance overshadowing almost everything, and he makes us feel for him, feel his desperation, we worry his vulnerability.
And then, there’s David Fincher, at the helm of this masterpiece. For long he has been in my book the brilliant enfant terrible of cinema, and although his filmography till now is that of somebody who has a great deal of genius inside him, none of the films there are exactly a product of a genius. There’s always a shade of psychotic evil looming large in his films (Se7en, Fight Club, The Game, Panic Room), and most often it is the kind society hasn’t come to grips with. It is the kind of evil that seems to be inspired from films, rather than real-life, as in Se7en which is again a brilliant police procedural but a rather unconvincing social comment. Zodiac is work of calming wisdom, against the raw energy of his earlier film, and creates a mature world which goes about its business dealing with evil as nonchalantly as evil carries itself. He still uses his encyclopedic knowledge of films the only difference being he isn’t showing it off this time around. Like the time when Graysmith follows Toschi walking pass the tables of San Francisco Chronicle, and we immediately feel like Bullitt meets Carl Bernstein, and Graysmith is supposed to feel like that too. That is the kind of genius few directors are capable of. His editing, his shot selection, are so old school and thoughtful. Modern crime thrillers usually tend to slice a sequence into several, unnecessary pieces for artificial dramatic effect, effectively serving us a mashed item. But here, it starts of by merely observing, gradually taking and guiding us deep inside the maze. I’ve long worried about the man, for he was the most talented new name whose body of work just wasn’t kicking off. Zodiac gives me much more than a hope, it rather assures me that one of modern cinema’s masters has well and truly arrived.
I could go on, it is that kind of film I could give extra-long discourses on, I could just take every little sequence, every little frame, and talk about how magnificently it has been created. I would watch it again, and again, to try and realize how such a masterful work was created. If 2007 were stand up in cinema history books to claim for an accomplishment, it needn’t look any further. I do have my flaws and I most usually am biased, and if it weren’t for my shortcomings, Zodiac would have towered over anything this year in my book, and that includes 3:10 to Yuma.


Shantanu Dhankar said...

I'm a regular reader of your blog and I appreciate your writings. I've seen Zodiac as well, undoubtedly it is very well researched and technically brilliant, but it just fails to entertain to a normal viewer. Seemingly there are no major events involved (around which a story can rotate),It grips at times (esp when the cops zeroes down on leigh) but then it just dies down...Cinema serves a major purpose of entertainment, I think this is where zodiac takes a beating.

Anyways,I enjoyed reading this one as well. A few days back I saw Stanley Kubrick's 'A ClockWork Orange', Windering what you would think of it.

Shantanu Dhankar said...

Thanks for the rather generous praise for the photographs, now I can convinve myself to buy a better camera :).

A word on the NO SMOKING review - I have not seen the movie (With the VCD being out, I plan to watch it soon).You've been very considerate in understanding the rather abstract form of the cinema(I appreciate that a lot), It was very educative for me...Will drop a line or two after watching the movie.

Just Another Film Buff said...

This is definitely a formal achievement. The antagonist is, after all a middle-aged guy with a gun, but you sense the oppressive presence of an almost metaphysical evil. As for the value of the film itself, I'm not in the enthusiastic camp. May be it's the age.

With four (or is it 5?) other Fincher films after this, how do you think this holds for you?