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Archive for March 21st, 2010

Back in October last year I started a series of blogs focusing on directors I consider to be modern auteurs (is that the correct plural for auteur?).  The main criteria to qualify as “modern” were directors who made their feature debut within the last twenty years.  Number one on the list was David Fincher and the blog consisted of a look back at my three favourite of his movies.  Number two on the list Quentin Tarantino still hasn’t seen the light of day for many reasons, one of them; I can’t decide on my three favourite Tarantino movies.  This brings me to the point of this ramble, comments two bloggers I respect Mcarter at themovies and Ross McG from Ross v Ross both suggested I was remiss not to mention Zodiac. At first I put this down the wild unfounded suggestions Ross is prone to making.  Then I spotted a Zodiac DVD in the bargain bin at ASDA for just £2, for that price I thought it deserved a second chance.  While I enjoyed it the first time around I wasn’t in a mad rush to see it a second time.  On the subject take a look at this great article from The Stories That Really Mattered.  So how did it live up to a second viewing?

Zodiac is an epic story of obsession.  Starting in 1969 when the San Francisco Chronicle receives a series of letters from the Zodiac Killer.  The job of reporting the story is taken by the papers crime reporter Paul Avery (a brilliant as ever Robert Downey Jr.).  At the same time we see the police, principally David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) working the case with little success.  As they discover other possibly connected cases in surrounding counties they are frustrated by jurisdictional boundaries and cooperation from other forces. Over time the police and the press run out of leads but one man refuses to give up on the case.  As the Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) was the least involved of the newspaper staff to begin with. Over several years he makes new breakthroughs in the case that could finally lead to a conclusion.

** Warning: Working on the assumption that by now most people have some knowledge of the case there will be plot spoilers from this point on **

It is no great surprise that Robert Graysmith is the central character of the movie; it is actually based on two books he wrote.  His involvement in the case begins with a “boy scout” interest if the ciphers the zodiac sends to the paper.  After first been discouraged he is ultimately he is encouraged to get involved by Paul Avery, a liberty taken with what really happened as the pair were not actually friends.  Dramatically a good liberty to take as the scenes they share are brilliant, playing on Downey Jr’s edgy near comic performance against Gyllenhaal’s wide eyed innocence.  The bar scene is the mark of a director who is totally confident in his craft.  A short build up followed by the shots of empty glasses could be dismissed a cliché 101, but in fact is the perfect way of cutting through the friendship building bullshit that works better in and implied way.  During this part of the movie Paul Avery himself makes some breakthroughs on the case himself even becoming a possible target for the Zodiac.  Ultimately his investigation falls away.  When we later see him living reclusively on his houseboat working for a deadbeat parochial paper it could be seen as a man defeated by the case.  The same could be said for Bill Armstrong transferring to a different department to get an easier job with better hours.  The way the case consumes Grayshith’s life both personal and professional could also be considered a defeat in a way.

The casting is perfect throughout the movie with great performances also given by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as the cops and small but significant parts for Brian Cox and Philip Baker Hall.  The two main suspects are also brilliantly played by John Carroll Lynch and Charles Fleischer.  The only real disappointment is the lack of decent female characters. The most prominent is Chloë Sevigny playing Graysmith’s second wife Melanie, she is a disappointing character starting of overly understanding and later becoming very nagging.  This is an unfortunate side effect of the jump forward in time that narrative takes during a quite spell in the investigation.  The jump in time is possibly the only misstep in the direction.  It is so overt that it breaks the link with the viewer for a moment. It was however something that had to be done for the good of the narrative as well as the time constraints of the movie.

There are many outstanding scenes in the movie a couple that really stood out for for me were when towards the end of the film Graysmith’s visits Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer)’s house and gets spooked.  A supremely well constructed and acted scene where a witness quickly becomes a suspect before our own eyes. The other is the opening “Hurdy Gurdy Man” killing where the tension is slowly built up.  This sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Comparisons between the Zodiac and Jack the Ripper cases are inevitable, there are countless Jack the Ripper movies that present possible explanations, some of them may even be true, however they all require a huge amount of speculation.  To its credit Zodiac avoids all of this by sticking to the facts (with a certain amount of essential artistic licence).  Most of the film is about the investigation and not the killings themselves.  We only see the Zodiac portrayed at times when there was an eyewitness account.  Film writer Kim Newman once said of the movie “Zodiac was fated from its inception to be an uncomfortable experience, a whodunnit with the last few pages torn out, a film biography of a faceless man.” Although true, it isn’t to the detriment of the movie, it is still compelling viewing. Not for the outcome but because of the journey we take to get there.  That’s not to say the ending is bad, whist not as memorable as some of the directors other work namely Se7en and Fight Club, the ending fits this movie as perfectly as their endings fit them.  In the hands of a great director like David Fincher it is no surprise that the journey is so good, after all great filmmakers are often at there most creative whilst at there most restricted or constrained. The ultimate success of the film is as a character study, it works so well because the characters are real and more importantly perfectly portrayed.

Back the question I asked at the top: how did it live up to a second viewing? I have to say they were right it is a great film I enjoyed a second time around even more than the first. Subject to a third or even fourth viewing it will probably find its way into my Fincher top three at the expence of The Game but it won’t overthrow Fight Club or Seven at the top!

Keep looking out for Quentin Tarantino and the rest of the series, I will get back to it one day.

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