Friday, January 11, 2008

10 Best Films of 2007: #1 - Zodiac

The best film of the year is not at all unlike No Country For Old Men (my number two choice, but really these rankings are arbitrary) in that Zodiac is a dark and nihilistic film that offers no simple resolution, answers, or reason for death. It excels on a frustrating and ambiguous narrative idea: not knowing who the Zodiac killer is, and never being able to find out. Or rather the broader, more overarching, theme that death is not only prevalent, but also constant, nonnegotiable, and impervious to our desire to understand it (or in the case of Zodiac decoding it.)

It is one of the most frustrating unsolved mysteries of all time, the Zodiac killer who went on a killing spree in San Francisco was never caught, and the film does a great job of capturing a city who wants to believe he has been so they can go on living their lives (the scene in the lobby of the movie theater is a perfect example). It is a film that doesn’t rely on the clichés of the thriller genre, jolting you with false scares and convenient clues, rather it invites the audience to join the process of the investigation through every excruciating detail and bits of minutiae, the audience is also invited to share in the frustrations of a city, and like them, knowing that we’ll never know who the killer is.

It is a film about journalism, isolation, and a police procedural that is unmatched by any other film of its kind since JFK. The film is mostly about the search for the Zodiac killer, and the film grasps at straws, and so do we as we try to figure out the mystery ourselves. The amazing thing about the film (aside from the detail in every single shot) is that nothing much happens, but it is easily the most fascinating film of the year. It steers clear of becoming any kind of conventional thriller, avoiding the potholes of cheap scares and chase scenes.

The manhunt spans a decade – giving cinematographer Harris Savides the opportunity to paint the landscape in multiple shades of gray against changing backgrounds only adding to the theme of uncertainty and ambiguity as always spanning time and always present in our lives (even though things change, death does not) – it is an uncertainty that not only haunts the city, but those determined (Jake Gyllanhal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Edwards) to solve the mystery of the Zodiac's cryptic letters, which taunted the newspapermen and police officers. The film’s dark, dreary look and plodding storyline are perfect for the type of story director David Fincher is trying to tell. The case could not have been exciting and even though Mark Ruffalo, who plays inspector David Toschi, was the inspiration for the Clint Eastwood film, Dirty Harry and Steve McQueen's character in Bullitt, at this point in his career he just looks tired; tired of all the death and the ambiguity of the case.

Gyllenhal’s character, the newspapers comic strip writer Robert Graysmith, does come with a solution to the crime, and it appears that the authorities have the killer in mind, they just cannot pin that one piece of crucial evidence. Even Toschi by the end of the film, as he listens to Graysmith's findings, is too cynical and jaded to know that, even though Graysmith is probably right, there is nothing he can do about it now, too much time has passed. By the end of the film, there is a final confrontation that is spoken through silence, and tells the audience all we need to know. The San Francisco police department and David Toschi had their Zodiac killer, they knew who he was, and they just couldn’t pin anything on him.

And that’s what Fincher, in his most (thankfully) subdued film gets across: the frustration. Not only our own anxiety and frustration watching the film, but also that of the entire Bay Area at the time. This is not an action packed fast paced thriller, but it is a slow procedural that is authentic in its sets, costumes, even the photography seems to be something out of a 1970’s crime drama. It is this excruciating attention to detail that turned some off to the film, but I was thankful that Fincher went this route. With a case that spans almost two decades, with a killer who has never been caught, you cannot speed up the process. The film had to be slow, methodical, and accurate in its portrayal of the facts and the real life characters that poured their lives into this case, but that doesn’t mean Zodiac isn't boring or unengaging.

And it is that seemingly eternal frustration that haunts every frame of the film. Things had to be absolute and exact with the case, and they just weren't. Just when there seems to be some silver lining and just as death and evil is within the grasp of the “good guys”, it slips away on a formality. Death is everywhere and it plods along without a care in the world; as evasive as ever. This is what Antone Chigurh was in No Country For Old Men, and this is the feeling of every passing minute of David Fincher’s masterpiece.

Zodiac is a procedural unmatched by many. I mentioned JFK earlier which I think is still the best film of its kind, but Zodiac deserves a place right next to it (like 1a) and among other great procedurals like All the President’s Men and The Insider. That’s pretty good company.

Any of my top three films on this list could be interchangeable. They all share a common theme and they all refuse to give in to the Hollywood machine and try offer up easy answers and solutions to these films. We go to bed every night and there is always something happening away from our lives, some kind of evil, and even though we may be good people amidst that evil (Nikolai in Eastern Promises, Ed Tom Bell in No Country and Graysmith in Zodiac), it will always exist. But even as I tried to put No Country and Eastern Promises in this spot, no film left more of an impression on me than Zodiac.


  1. In a way, this film felt like it came and went much faster than its long running time. I felt like I did become part of the investigation in the film and was completely sucked in to it.

    In a sense, it might have done too good a job of that. When the film finished, I wanted to see another hour of it -- to know even more about these people and their lives and how this entire ordeal affected them. That is always something I admire from a formalistic standpoint, but from an emotional standpoint I just wanted more.

    Of course, this isn't really a fault of the films -- since it's based on a true story that didn't have a true conclusion -- just an observation from me.

    There are a couple of scenes that are able to evoke dread (the daylight attack, the night scene at the house) and stayed with me long after the film ended. As you pointed out, those scenes are done in such a atypical fashion, never needing shock scares or jump cuts.

    Maybe the best thing about the film it makes me actually think that Fincher IS a good director and not an overrated music video maker. I was starting to worry there for a while. It shows he can combine good filmmaking with good visuals. Hooray.