Thursday, May 22, 2008

David Fincher, "Zodiac" (2007).

There are some American film lovers that will insist that director David Fincher is an auteur. His hyper-stylized and frenzied movies have captivated the ADHD generation. He has made a handful of successful thrillers, including Se7en (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), and Panic Room (1992). In the process he has amassed a huge and loyal fanbase. His early development prepared him well for the role he now fills in our cultural landscape. He started off working for George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. He then produced a commercial for the American Cancer Society that featured a fetus smoking a cigarette. This brought him to the attention of the film industry, and gave folks a hint of his developing aesthetic.

Fincher has also directed numerous music videos for Propaganda Films. Notable among his clients were George Michael, Billy Idol, Nine Inch Nails, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, and The Rolling Stones. This work proved that Fincher could display comfort and confidence while at the helm of a very large budget. He was subsequently tagged to make Aliens 3 (1992), a project he would later publicly disavow due to creative differences with 20th Century Fox. After this experience he went on to produce the aforementioned series of films, which propelled him into his current status. He is known to take on challenging stories, and commit to an unflinching depiction of oftentimes sordid material.

I've always viewed Fincher with skepticism. I've felt that he undermines his own promise with melodrama and elaborate special effects. While his films are usually good entertainment, there is always at least one 'groaner moment' which keeps the work from ascending to the level of art. With that perspective, I began watching Zodiac (his latest movie) with reservations. I had read some good reviews from sources I trust, but could not imagine being wholly satisfied with a Fincher picture. My preconceptions seemed to be confirmed in the first half hour of this serial killer flick. While we watch the tense lead-up to the first on-screen murder, we are suddenly subjected to the rising volume of period rock-and-roll. It really does feel as if Fincher has flash backed to his time with MTV.

Even if I did find a hint of crass exploitation in the soundtrack, I resolved to make it through the 157-minute running length of Zodiac. I was familiar with the story, having read Kelleher and Van Nuys' This is the Zodiac Speaking. I wanted to see just how much fealty Fincher would have to the historical source material. It didn't necessarily bode well that all of the killings were portrayed in the first hour of the film. I wondered what the director could have to fill the rest of the time. I was mildly pleased to see the story transform from a series of violent vignettes to a brooding study of growing obsession. The Zodiac case kept much of California on the edge of abject terror for almost half a decade. Fincher's approach seemed refreshing.

By the end of the movie I was ready to give Fincher some long withheld credit. Not only was he able to assemble a great cast of major and minor players (including Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Jake Gyllenhall, Chloe Sevigny, Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, Adam Goldberg, Clea Duvall, and John Carroll Lynch), but he was able to include roles that gave them something to chew on. It was refreshing to see that Fincher could include characterization in his film-making toolbox. His trademark atmosphere was present without being overwhelming, and there were only a few moments of obvious excess. It makes me feel better about the rumor that he has agreed to adapt Charles Burns' excellent art comics series, Black Hole. That material is too good to see it marred by an immature sensibility.

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