David Fincher’s quest to become the new Alan Pakula hit new heights with his riveting serial killer/investigative journalism thriller Zodiac, which might possibly be his greatest accomplishment yet as a filmmaker. I’m never sure, to be honest, what Fincher’s “best” film is — you could make the case for nearly all of them in one way or another. But with Zodiac, he tapped into our worst fears (that of a killer on the loose) and mixed the expected genre elements with an amazing sense of time and place, vividly recreating San Francisco during the late 60’s and early 70’s, as well as demonstrating a perfectionist’s eye in terms of both small and large narrative and visual details. The trio of Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. all did sterling work in this film, each of them carving out a unique portrait of obsessive behavior that would consume their characters at all times. The dense, phenomenally well-researched screenplay by James Vanderbilt (writer/director of the upcoming Dan Rather drama Truth) requires more than one viewing to accurately parse out all of the pieces of information, while Fincher’s steady, engrossing directorial aesthetic grips the viewer with paranoia and subtle style.
The late, great cinematographer Harris Savides (Birth, The Game, Elephant) gave Zodiac an amazing visual texture, with the digital photography augmenting all of the nighttime sequences with a realistic sense of light quality, while capturing the grisly murders with stark and brutal effectiveness on 35 mm film. The supporting cast hammered home all of their work with rigorous perfection, with standout peformances on display by John Carroll Lynch, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Philip Baker Hall, John Getz, Dermott Mulroney, John Terry, Donal Logue, Elias Koteas, Chloë Sevigny, and Adam Goldberg. David Shire’s creepy musical score smartly used period-authentic pop songs with an unnerving ambient soundtrack to maximum effect, while Angus Wall’s fleet, razor-sharp editing kept the two hour and 40 minute film feeling light on its feet; rarely do “long” movies feel this quick. Despite excellent critical support, the film didn’t catch on with the Academy (maybe it was the March release date or the middling box office returns), and while 2007 was a landmark year for cinema in general, Zodiac being left out of the big dance feels incredibly short-sighted. This is one of Fincher’s most absorbing films, filled with three dimensional and vulnerable characters that you root for, while showcasing a mystery that literally has no ending.