I have to laugh when David Fincher talks about having "demons you can't imagine" -- the "darkness" of most of his work, promiscuous of form and untouched by human characters, is so patently the result of years of technical tinkering (he started working as an Industrial Light and Magic FX guy) and cultivated neuroses that it's no surprise fanboys have given him Kubrick's Great Nerd mantle. The huge success of Se7en and the cultish adulation of Fight Club have made his career and possibly entrapped him as well, for his latest, Zodiac, early on discards the malevolent baroque the director is known for and proceeds, fascinatingly, to punish the bloodthirsty fans with a purposely slack exercise in frustration. A David Fincher film, nonetheless: "How can people be so cruel," go the Hair lyrics from the car radio of the first pair of lambs to be slaughtered, but the director's curiosity veers closer to mechanisms than to people, so Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" takes over the soundtrack, a snarkier rhythm to score a callous set-piece with. The victims are a nervously necking couple on Independence Day, 1969, their dread's delayed and shrouded in blackness, bullets pierce through them in voluptuous slow-mo; the envelope containing the murderer's taunt is wheeled through San Francisco Chronicle corridors during the credits, in it are a scrambled code and a promise of more deaths. Cartoonist Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes to amateur sleuthing, maybe in homage to the Far Side gag about math problems sneaked into doodling class, but tracking the killer (self-christened "Zodiac") falls first to detectives Toschi (Mark Ruffallo) and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), with reporter Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) digging his own clues.
Next to Se7en's sleek cabinet of horrors, Fincher's newest serial killer hunt shows maidenly restraint. The next on-screen murder is a reversal of the opening massacre, in crystalline daylight, the hooded Zodiac interrupting the bucolic picnic of two preppies with some awkward tying and stabbing; the camera follows a cab via distanced, overhead tracking shots, then cranes away after the driver's death to take a witness' view from a nearby apartment. There's little of the invasive intensity of Lustig's Maniac or Fulci's The New York Ripper, but there isn't meant to be -- Zodiac traces the crime through Southern California and throughout the 1970s, and deliberately dilutes the tension with ongoing temporal jumps ("8 months later... 11 hours later... 1 day later") emphasizing not the escalating spread of fear but the numbing feel of a flailing bureaucratic investigation. The steady, patient accumulation of evidence leads to dead end after dead end, while the main suspect cannot be held due to wobbly data. The more the culprit eludes the protagonists, the more obsessive they become in uncloaking him -- Spike Lee in Summer of Sam was content to tag his own zeitgeist-defining killer a "sick fuck," but the Zodiac becomes Moby Dick to the polyester-clad Ahabs, and in Fincher's grand joke the Great Beast is revealed (or is it?) as a rotund pederast (John Carroll Lynch) meekly validating Avery's "latent homosexual" prognosis with a limp wrist during a police visit. Previously a filmmaker of ejaculations, Fincher structures the picture as an extended anticlimax, the better to castigate the Imdb dwellers who exalt the digital gyrations of his camera while ignoring the turns of his thematic density.
Knotted in doubles, transferences of guilt, and short-circuiting codes of masculinity, Fincher's films can stand next to Hitchcock's in transgressive subtext, or at least they could if the director didn't sweat so hard trying to coat every inch of the screen with "edginess." The no-hair-out-of-place exactitude of image that I find so deadening in most of Fincher's other works still reigns supreme in Zodiac, yet by pruning away at his stylistic hysteria (a procedure that has, predictably, made it seem "boring" to a good deal of his fanbase), he's able to find a new direction while unpacking the motifs lurking beneath the surface. Fittingly enough, the picture picks up from the closing shot of Panic Room, the forward-tracking-zoom-out which refuses the comfort of closure -- fearful mystery looms and stability is denied, whether in the moonless, starless night or in the blasting light of the Chronicle newsroom. The Zodiac is Fincher's most abstract predator, a phantom that can hardly live up to the mythology built around him and whose incorporeal quiddity appears to dissipate into the air, polluting it for the decades to come. Sadly, Gyllenhaal's "fuckin' Boy Scout" is also Fincher's least interesting hero: The brief peek he snatches of the infernal flames within a bar named "Mortis" near the beginning promises a shadow side to be dragged to the fore, but his obsession is just stubble and untucked shirts. Is Gyllenhaal's blandness another facet of Fincher's frustration strategy, like the hammy underground scene guided by none other than Charles Roger Rabbit Fleischer? One way or another, Zodiac is an enthrallingly unsatisfactory film, worth watching and deciphering.
No better argument for Zodiac's severity than The Number 23's flashiness, pockmarked with so much Fincherian paraphernalia -- chaos, mania, subterranean detours, hieroglyphs behind wallpaper -- as to uncannily suggest what the filmmaker might have coughed up had he merely amplified his decadence rather than dissected it. At the wheel is the reliably abysmal Joel Schumacher -- if he can pulp genius into trash (read Larry Cohen's Phone Booth screenplay, then watch the filmic floater wrung out of it), imagine what horrors he may conjure up given an already rancid blueprint such as Fernley Philips' script. The stunt this time is a "dark" Jim Carrey, playing a pet detective (or something) who finds himself gripped by a book with a cracked red cover and developing a jabbering fixation on the number 23, as in 9/11 = 9 + 11 + 2 + 0 + 0 +1 = 23!! Digits swirl around his cranium, so he delves into a Walter Mitty-by-Cinamax fantasy world where he embodies the book's badass protagonist, a chance for Carrey to sport dirty hair and spurious tattoos and leech the humor out of his old In Living Color Clint Eastwood imitation. In all fairness, Carrey is more committed to his character's obsession than Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac, but conviction soon boils down to flapping haplessly on the screen while Schumacher is too busy making sure the mist creeping into the scene has just the right puke-yellow tone. The plot blathers on and on about the occult power of numbers, although there's nothing to decipher here -- the only figures of interest to its makers are the ones in box-office reports.
While Carrey channels Mickey Rourke in The Number 23's fantasy sequences, wife Virginia Madsen dons raven wig, miniskirt, and stiletto heels to turn herself into Monica Bellucci. It's as laughable as anything else in the film, yet it's a relief to watch the actress play a voluptuous siren, if only to see her ditch the boringly sensible wifely duties bestowed on her again and again since the Sideways acclaim brought her back into the Hollywood scene. It's back to supportive domestic beaming for Madsen in the insufferably paternalistic The Astronaut Farmer, where all she does is add to the condescending eccentricity of hubby Billy Bob Thornton, a Texas rancher with cosmic dreams building a rocket in his barn. So sure of his space-traveling plan as to toss a brick at anybody who questions its sanity, he springs his children from school and makes them his crew, since there's a difference between "how to read history and how to make it" -- another film might see the character for the arrogant prick that he is, but filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish want to keep ripping off David Lynch (this time it's The Straight Story) so Thornton is supposed to be a kind of homegrown Daedalus, supposedly a stand-in for the stubborn dreamer in all of us. What Billy Bob and the Polish brothers serve instead is a return to the self-fondling Americana which made Reagan-era cinema the pinnacle of ethnocentric complacency. I pass.
Reviewed March 8, 2007.