To begin this first article in our new series “Movies That Deserve a Second Thought,” I will go about explaining what it is all about. Here I will discuss films that I believe need more attention, whether it be for lack of notability or positive critic reviews. For each article, I will talk about the certain film’s merit, whatever legacy or reputation it has, and why I believe it has not gotten the proper amount of positive attention and praise. Remember, I’m not necessarily choosing films that were poorly received by critics, just movies that, after their initial release, sort of vanished into the ether for reasons I just can’t comprehend. Now that we have that taken care of, let’s get into the first addition to this series: David Fincher’s Zodiac.
David Fincher is not what you would call a “little-known director.” He is the mastermind who crafted such cinematic beauties as The Social Network, Gone Girl, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Fight Club (my personal favorite movie of all time). He is also the man who bore the 1995 thriller Seven (otherwise known as “Se7en”) which Roger Ebert recalled to be “one of the darkest and most merciless films ever made in the Hollywood mainstream.”
Seven, which stars Morgan Freeman as a homicide detective on the brink of retirement and Brad Pitt on the other side of the spectrum only starting his first week on the job, is a film that has managed to burrow itself into our culture and for very good reason. It tells the haunting tale of two detectives who are put onto the murder case that keeps on giving. The first victim was found with his head in a bowl of spaghetti, his stomach ruptured; he was force-fed to death. One could call that gluttony, and that’s exactly what was written on the wall behind the refrigerator for Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) to find. Soon more murders are revealed, all with a disquieting similarity: each is an example of one of the seven deadly sins. Very soon the case begins to unravel into one of the most deranged and sinister plots you will ever experience, and one that has one of the most merciless finales ever depicted on celluloid.
It is quite clear when you watch Seven that Fincher is no ordinary filmmaker. This is filmmaking of the highest order, which is incredible given this is only Fincher’s second feature after the much-maligned Alien 3. Did you even know Fincher directed another murder mystery? Well, he did. Back in 2007, he directed the Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. led thriller Zodiac, which chronicles the events and people involved in the infamous Zodiac Killer case which spanned close to four decades (in some cities in California, the case is still open). Zodiac is also the film that, I believe, cemented Fincher as a truly versatile and singular talent. Here he made a film for the likes of which he had not made before. This is not a film like Se7en to any extent. There are no presentations of grisly murders or gore besides a few brief sequences, but a long string of carefully crafted and placed scenes of dialogue and police-work. This subtlety could be the reason for a lot of people hearing the title “Seven” and thinking “What’s in the box!” and when they hear “Zodiac” they say, “I’m a scorpio.”
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who becomes obsessed with solving the murders which he remained mostly a bystander for while he worked for the newspaper which reported on it. Robert Downey Jr. plays the journalist who writes the articles on the Zodiac, his murders, his letters, and apparently his sexual orientation, which the Zodiac killer doesn’t appreciate all that much. Mark Ruffalo plays the homicide investigator who is put on the Zodiac case. Much like Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills is Seven, in the beginning Ruffalo is a young, energetic, hopeful cop asking his partner for animal crackers whenever they are called in to investigate a scene, and in the end he is exhausted. Later in the film he stops asking his partner for animal crackers. I guess he’s lost the taste for them.
There are a lot of characters to keep track of throughout the film, but these are the three you follow the most thoroughly and each actor plays their respective roles accordingly. Zodiac lacks visceral thrills so the actors have no distraction from their performances, and they rise to the challenge. There’s an intrigue to primarily Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo’s performances and their way of showing the mental and emotional change they become victim to. Robert Downey Jr., as charming and great as he is in the role, basically plays himself. Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo possess a certain fascination with their characters, never just spouting their lines dramatically, but uttering them in a way that disguises all evidence of drama. They really seem to believe they are these people.
David Fincher has a way of getting the sharpest performances out of his casts, such as in The Social Network where his actors weren’t only reciting lines, but getting lost in them. He also has a way with an atmosphere that is impeccable. In Seven, he crafted a city shrouded in darkness–this is evident through the fact that it almost always rains. In Fight Club, he wanted to create a city without a name, one to accent the protagonist’s psychological struggle–the lack of landmarks and street signs hidden in the dark shadows created by the towering buildings was a fitting scenery. In Zodiac, he wanted to make a murder mystery without making a murder mystery, and he succeeds. Much of the film is shot in daylight, the anxiety-inducing scenes shot in the dark are not of the sense as in Seven, but much stricter and more nuanced. He didn’t want the murders to overshadow the characters and dialogue. The climax of the film does not consist of an action sequence or an alarming twist of events, but simply two men staring at each other, and it is one of the most satisfying cinematic moments I have experienced in a long time.
Zodiac gained massive critical success when it opened in 2007 and was in the top spots of dozens of critic end of the year lists. So why hasn’t it punctured deeper into our culture? Is it due to its lack of visceral excitement? Have we as a society reached the point for which casual viewers can no longer withstand a film which prefers dialogue over visual effects? I personally don’t think so, but how else could one explain the lack of attention?
Zodiac is a film that deserves a second thought, or for some, a chance. It’s the film that proves Fincher is no one-trick pony. There is a scene where the Zodiac calls into host Melvin Belli’s (Brian Cox) morning talk show that caught me off guard. It’s a scene of incredible intensity and dread, and one that didn’t have to be that way. We do not cut to the killer sadistically walking about his dirty home, but hear his voice which emits a sense of pain and agony that is hard to swallow. This killer for which we never really see on screen gets a whole new layer during this scene as he complains about his headaches and the one and only prescription: murder. He hangs up several times during this conversation only to call again for he is not dumb. Of course, the police are trying to trace his call and he is well aware.
My Score: 4/5
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%