The Quarantine Stream: 'Zodiac' is a Modern MasterpieceJune 12, 2020
(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Zodiac
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Kanopy
The Pitch: David Fincher’s obsessive portrait of obsession, Zodiac follows three different people – a detective, a journalist, and a political cartoonist – as they become mired in the hunt for the Zodiac Killer.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Zodiac is a long movie – 157 minutes – but in the words of Roger Ebert, “Bad movies are always too long, but good movies are either too short, or just right.” Zodiac is a great movie, which means its big runtime never overstays its welcome. In fact, you’ll come away from this epic probably hungry for more.
David Fincher knows how to make serial killers entertaining. After the mishap of Alien 3, his career recovered – and bloomed – thanks to Seven. And he also had a hand in Netflix’s fantastic serial killer series Mindhunter. But the best work in Fincher’s multiple murder filmography is Zodiac, a full-blown masterpiece. This isn’t your traditional serial killer flick. Instead, it’s more like All the President’s Men. It’s not about the murders – not really. It’s about the investigation. It’s about the hunt.
The first act of the film is devoted to the killer’s crimes throughout California. But then, the killings stop – and they don’t start up again. And yet there’s a whole lot of movie left. Fincher covers all of this over a period of years, and that time frame helps make Zodiac so watchable. The movie never overstays its welcome because it’s constantly shifting.
And so are its leads. One portion of the film has flighty reporter Robert Downey Jr. appearing to be the main character, with Jake Gyllenhaal appearing to be a supporting presence as a cartoonist at the same newspaper. Then things change. Enter Mark Ruffalo, playing a detective investigating the murders (along with his partner, played wonderfully by Anthony Edwards).
Ah, but wait! Just when we’ve settled into Ruffalo being our lead, the narrative changes again. Now, suddenly, Gyllenhaal is our main character, as his cartoonist character becomes obsessed with solving a mystery no one else could solve. It’s not easy to keep changing perspectives like this, and Zodiac could’ve backfired badly. But it doesn’t. Fincher’s direction, James Vanderbilt’s strong script, and the charisma of those three leads keeps the movie alive.
Fincher is a filmmaker who understands obsession – he’s obsessive himself, with infamous stories about the many, many, many takes he requires to get shots right. That obsession is the real secret to Zodiac‘s success, because it is, in the end, a film about obsession. Obsession can drive us. Inspire us. Keep us going. It can also destroy us if we’re not careful. As the film’s tagline warns, “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.”
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