Friday, June 08, 2007

What Sign Are You Again?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me if I had been at the same screening of David Fincher's Zodiac at the MK2 Bastille, as he heard somebody in the auditorium laugh mockingly in a voice that was similar to mine. It wasn't, though his suspicions were credible enough as I have been known to scoff out loud, in Edna Krebopple fashion, when I am subjected to awful films, and I also hate Fincher's films. To be fair, it is only Seven that has managed to raise near-genocidal indignation in me, as The Game was not quite as offensively bad as it might otherwise have been as it was patently a straight-to-video clanger dressed up with a star cast. Fight Club was, for its first hour at least fun but its spiralling descent into nonsense via a moronic twist robbed it of any right to be considered a cult classic. That it is considered a cult classic by many is due to the fact that those many are of a certain generation that are persuaded the field of 'philosophy' is mainly concerned with being a byword for manifestos for dotcom companies and many other flimsy 'multi-media' enterprises. If one attempts to pin the label 'intelligent' to Fincher's cinema, one need only look at Seven to be disabused of this notion. One of the most inane, manipulative and self-serving pieces of art cinema ever served up, not to mention one of the most pretentious. The film's monotone narrative, which unceasingly shows the world to be even more miserable than queuing for food in post-Enduring Freedom Iraq, is wearyingly one-dimensional and the film closes on a twist as facile as the one in Fight Club was redundant. Morgan Freeman's closing line 'Ernest Hemingway said that the world is a great place and worth saving - I believe with the latter sentiment' is so improbably lofty that it provoked vomiting far more than all the gore that preceded it.

So, why then did I go see Zodiac, especially as this same friend of mine said that it was indeed inane? After all, I passed over Fincher's last film Panic Room. It was mainly due to the positive reviews of the film in both the Anglophone and Francophone press - and believe me, when both of these agree, there is something in the air. The surprising thing is that the film is not bad - in fact it's quite good. The story of the Zodiac killer that terrorised Northern California for a couple of years in the early 1970s, the film is based on a book by former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith - played here by a wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal - the film is an unflashy but thrilling re-enactment of the era and the impact of the Zodiac killer's rampage. One might as well say it straight off: the reason the film is so watchable is that Fincher's direction is self-effacing. There is none of the conceptual showboating of the earlier films, nor any of the technical fripperies that look even more pathetic following the rise and fall of Guy Ritchie. Fincher steps back and directs the film for the most part with a subtlety that I never suspected him capable of.

It opens with the first recorded killing, which was of a woman known to the killer, after a drive-in in late 1979. The scene is shot in chilling slow-motion, to the strains of Donovan's 'Hurdy-Gurdy Man', which adds an extra disturbing frisson to the action. There is no retro hipness being mined here. The next murder, a daylight stabbing, is likewise terrifying. The Zodiac killer sends the Bay Area newspapers cryptic messages advertising his killers and challenges them to catch him. The interest in the story eventually fades, and is only kept alive by the dilligence of Graysmith, who arrives late on the scene and uncovers much of the vital evidence while enduring some hairy brushes with the potential killer along the way.

There are limitations to the film - its excellence is more formal than substantial, some of the McGuffins confuse rather than mislead and it is saddled with only circumstantial evidence, as the police investigation itself was - but overall it is that rare thing these days - an intelligent, well-made big-budget Hollywood feature. It is also helped by having an amazing cast - Gyllenhaal is suitably green as Graysmith, while Robert Downey Junior, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Cox, Philip Baker Hall and Chloë Sevigny bring a scrupulous professionalism to their respective roles. And the film is, throughout, scary. I didn't laugh out loud once. Job well done, Mr Fincher.