Saturday, April 07, 2007

All the Psychopath's Men

Late to the party, yes, and maybe even evacuating theaters in your city by the end of the week, but with my current harried schedule I only managed to see David Fincher's new masterpiece, Zodiac, several night ago, and in the location where the film takes place, San Francisco, no less.

This isn't the usual Hollywood San Francisco of romance in Union Square and by the Golden Gate Bridge, or cars catching air in spectacular chases over impossible hills, or escapes from Alcatraz. The opening shot is of the Bay Bridge, as if for counterpoint.

This is the San Francisco of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, a kind of storied backwater where you can get lost in an obsession and left to your own devices, a place where the fog and chill seems somehow indicative of how poorly you know your neighbors, and that car turning around is coming back to haunt you.

I actually saw the film in a neighborhood where I used to live, or live near, out West on Geary just entering The Richmond at The Bridge theater, a small and comfortingly hip relic heavily touting their Grindhouse opening with midnight showings of actual 1970's grindhouse films. When I walked out of the theater and left the small gangs of audience members behind, I felt the creep of the movie seep out into the desolate street, thankful that I had parked on the next corner, in front of the darkened Abbey Carpet showroom, sparse cars whipping by from under the Masonic Avenue underpass.

I drove quickly back to my hotel.

If you had any interest in the film at all you probably know that it covers the obsessive investigations by press and police into the infamous Zodiac Killer, who sent sometimes coded letters to the city newspapers and threatened even greater levels of terroristic homicide if they weren't printed.

You probably know that the movie runs 2 1/2 hours; that it stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. as the cartoonist-turned-author, police detective, and reporter who's lives were all turned upside down by their obsessions with the case; and you likely know that the actual Zodiac killer was never captured or even unimpeachably identified by the police.

So an almost exclusively male character film about an unsuccessful investigation and maddening lack of closure. Whose idea of a Saturday night date flick?

It doesn't matter, because I found every inch of Zodiac to be riveting.

Director Fincher grew up the Bay Area during the major span of time the story covers, roughly 1969 thru the end of the Seventies. He's got every detail down pat, in such a less showy or false way than most recent period pictures trying to recreate that time (with the notable exception of Paul Shrader's Auto Focus), and as we settle into that assurance it frees up the imaginative space to really feel how these men are trapped both by the Zodiac killer and the resolute progress of time; the danger of disappearing helplessly into history.

I guess '70's moviemaking is back. Scorsese, Nicholson and Sheen forge an Oscar with The Departed, Rodriguez and Tarantino reopen the Grindhouse, Terrence Malick comes out of hiding, and Fincher channels Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet. The detailed investigations, hair-trigger tense interrogations, and credible newsroom atmosphere are stylistically inspired by my favorite movie from the era, Pakula's All the President's Men. (How eerie that Cheney's shrubbery appearance recalls Pakula's first political paranoia classic, The Parallal View.) The police department scenes are in the Lumet Serpico / Prince of the City cold-eyed groove.

The murders are all more customary Fincher sequences, which is to say really suspenseful while feeling really fresh. All of the action scenes, you know this guy has an idea for each one, and they unfold like waking nightmares, infecting the procedural sequences with a particularly pungent dread, the dread of knowing that whoever did this will get away with it in the movie because they did in real life.

Zodiac is based on Robert Graysmith's (Gyllenhaal) books about the case, having been a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when the first letters came in and alcoholic counterculture reporter Paul Avery was working on the story

Gyllenhaal has never created a more complete character, and maybe the most discomforting scene in the movie is his first date with Chloe Sevigny, his soon-to-be wife. Fincher reportedly drove him nuts with his endless numbers of takes and decisive erasing of dozens of them in fell swoops off the digital camera hard drives. But it works, a great performance. Ruffalo gets his fullest big movie character to date, so likable and identifiable as Inspector David Toschi. And Downey Jr. comes across like a ringer, never so clearly relaxed in his control while still capturing every wicked color of reporter Avery's self-destruction.

All the way down to the smaller parts, even drawing Dermot Mulroney, Adam Goldberg and James LeGros in for what are essentially gratifyingly persuasive cameos, the un- or lesser known actors as the victims, and especially John Carroll Lynch as Most Likely Suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (his interrogation is the lynchpin scene), the casting and direction are seamlessly superb, and keep the purposefully complicated story rattling along.

It's a 1970's filmmaking kind of intelligence, a big budget art house epic noir with a Stanley Kubrick-esque shot integrity but laced with that lost '70's California grime and crime. This is the post-Manson Family California of the late 1960's/early 1970's, when the Vietnam War infected the zeitgeist like nicotine stains. This is the pinnacle of the pre-Information Age era of media and detection; the dying apex of the Bureaucratic Age, knowingly sophisticated but cluttered with too much architecture from the past.

So much for "the good old days."

I think the ultimate kick that Zodiac gives off and aches for ensuing days is that it makes time itself the mastervillain, and the Zodiac killer just his demon facilitator.

It's rare to see the passage of time handled so skillfully as the transitions and pacing by Fincher, and as the first decade finally accelerates the text reports at the bottom of the screen of when and where we've arrived become part of the overall obsessive details, the ones Graysmith buries himself in, Fincher's own painstaking cinematic perfection.

These men were doomed by a clever little psychopath with a gun. He directs them -- no matter their minor qualms, they do his own bidding right from the publishing of the first letter. His very existence seizes their lives by the middle, redirects expected flows, the very ambition of exposing this man taken hostage by their lack of success. Their shared, for different reasons, fatal flaw.

It's when the years start piling up that we feel the horror.

Had the killer ever been verified, had he not been allowed to slip away just that one time, were there some sense of justice like we've come to expect, to demand every Saturday night, even if it happen last week, what a relief. And maybe box office.

But Fincher shows true guts in taking on this story, letting event dictate structure rather than imposing some audience-infant bullshit. And he gives us something reminiscent of a 1970's movie ending, albeit with a touch more closure than you usually got in the arty ones back then, trust me.

As the early-murder "Hurdy Gurdy Man" (Donovan) theme reprises you realize you won't think of that song the same way the next time you hear it, now either as dreadeningly banal or as maddeningly pertinent as your Illuminati or Zodiac obsessed ears may hear them. Just another taunting fistful of information that will do nothing to help you capture a serial killer.

Zodiac asks if any cause is worth devoting your life to over that fistful, or is it just taunting you as from the ancient fairgrounds, time hurtling on:

Histories of ages past
Unenlightened shadows cast
Down through all eternity
The crying of humanity

'Tis then when the hurdy gurdy man
Comes singing songs of love
Then when the hurdy gurdy man
Comes singing songs of love

Even this hurdy gurdy man. A siren's call.


Gus said...

It's refreshing to see a police procedural that really takes some time. Especially after Law & Order where the cops catch their man in 25 minutes.

Another great layer of the movie is the way it touches back on cinema. With flicks like The Most Dangerous Game and Bullitt playing their own roles, the movie sorta folds back in on itself and the medium.

Mark Netter said...

I felt like the beginning, the opening murder sequence, had a distinct "American Graffiti" quality to it, with a kind of Candy Clark/Charles Martin Smith angle on the couple relationship, the NoCal smalltown cruising, and the drive-by the 1950's relic carhop diner.

That movie would have been a touchstone for Fincher back in 1973 as well, a vision of early '60's California utopia that he so effectively subverts when Zodiac comes along.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...We'll have to talk about this.