In lieu of a traditional Best of the Decade list, I've decided instead to do a series on notable films from the last ten years. These might be the Best of the Best, these might be noble efforts. They might, in your eyes, be total failures. They're certainly my favorites, and they are, I hope, films very much worth discussing, and that qualification is much more valuable than simply being really damn good.
I really didn't think too much of the film going into it, at a preview screening a couple days before its release in early March 2007. Director David Fincher returning to the serial killer genre after Seven seemed like a pretty rote decision, and although I had heard it was a lot better than anyone expected...well, Fincher tended to be a little overrated.
It'd be nice to say the film blew me away right off the bat. I thought it was pretty exceptional, a real step forward for Fincher, but although I was home for Spring Break on the first week of its release, I didn't make a special effort to go out and see it again.
And then, before I knew it, I was at the video store the day it came out on DVD, desperate to rent it. So desperate, I woke up a little earlier than I probably would've otherwise and got to the store a few minutes after it opened, afraid the twenty or thirty copies they had stocked would somehow be whisked away.
This, I tell people, is the thing about Zodiac.
It's all well and good to say the film's about the nature of obsession, but it's another to realize how obsessive we've all become about it. Two and a half years later, whenever it comes up on any blog, even if it's not the main thrust of the post, the comments section inevitably descends into people picking apart each scene, pointing out the many tiny moments that make the film a masterpiece.
And the cast...what a cast! It's become rote to pick on Jake Gyllenhaal, who in the end does fine work, but is so totally out of step with the lived-in, fully-fleshed people, who are yes, based on reality, but truly built by Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, among many others. The interplay between these people in every scene is so acute, so clearly played out again and again and again to Fincher's specification, but never less than vital, fresh, and totally real.
In nearly every conceivable way, the film is absolutely perfect. James Vanderbilt wrote, hands down, the finest screenplay of the last decade, not only in his total creation of each character, but also - and this is the thing that stood out to me right away - that I was actually able to follow the damn thing. One of my greatest weaknesses as a viewer is keeping track of names, which gets me in a lot of trouble when it comes to detective movies and police procedurals. That was never an issue with this film. We know exactly who everyone is and what their role is in the story at every turn (never mind our intimate familiarity with the locations - Washington and Cherry, Lake Berryessa, ETC.), and this, ultimately, is why the diner scene towards the end between Dave Toschi and Robert Graysmith is as thrilling as it is. It's easy to talk about the concept of building scenes throughout a movie that don't pay off until much later, but it's hard to think of a finer example than Zodiac.
Of course, this ambitious structure doesn't help its running time. I knew right away that the film was too long for a lot of people. I heard complaints in the days that followed, but even right in the screening, there were audible groans in the last few scenes whenever it faded out of black. Even I was smiling, sort of amused that they just kept this thing running and running and running, but it was only a few minutes from exiting the theater when I realized that was the entire point. If time wasn't a tangible presence, its slow, agonizing march onward towards the complete impossibility of a solution the real enemy, the entire film would fall apart.
And for this...we have David Fincher to thank, who quickly went from a very stylish director to a man with true vision, one of the most important filmmakers of the 21st century, and, as Kent Jones put it in the essay included with the Criterion Collection's release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a man with "a vision of time so heartbreakingly acute as to rival those of John Ford and Orson Welles."
There are many people who still don't understand what a director does, and Zodiac is one of those films you could watch with them (perhaps forcibly), and point out in every scene several aspects that define David Fincher's role in the film, and by the end you'd have a complete understanding of direction. On a commentary track for The Third Man, Steven Soderbergh says you could learn everything you need to learn about directing a movie from watching it, and I strongly believe the same is true about Zodiac. Every scene is pitched just so, the pace so exact. The whole film is so finely-tuned in a way that nearly every film does not. Fincher's imprint extends beyond the typical auteur definition of "you should be able to tell after thirty seconds who made this movie." It's pervasive, ingrained, essential to the way the film operates. It's clear that everything that's in the film is there for a reason, and that the way it's in there is intentional. It's odd, but even if I didn't know it, I could probably guess that Fincher does several dozen takes of many shots; nothing in the film feels "good enough." It has to be perfect. And it is.