David Fincher’s Zodiac Challenges the Conventional Serial Killer Thriller

David Fincher’s Zodiac is an important film in the director’s canon. It shows the growth of Fincher himself as a filmmaker, and also handles one of the sensationalized Hollywood stories, the serial killer on the loose, in novel ways. The serial killer horror thriller has been a staple of Hollywood’s blockbuster slate for decades, starting with the runaway success of films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 and John Carpenter’s Halloween, made in 1979. Both films are classics of the horror genre, but also purposely sensationalize the lurid tales of serial killers, playing to a morbid curiosity in American culture following the Manson family killings. David Fincher himself was a notable director in the genre, having directed one of the most iconic and popular horror films of the 1990’s, 1995’s Se7en. It was only appropriate that over a decade later, a film about one of the most enigmatic and puzzling real life crime stories in the enigmatic Zodiac killer would be directed by Fincher. Yet Fincher’s Zodiac is hardly a conventional film within the genre, even compared to Se7en. Instead of a bloody, thrilling roller coaster, Zodiac is a comparatively slow, bleak film, where the audience is immersed in the increasingly futile hunt for the killer’s identity.

Zodiac is far from a bloodless film. In fact at times it can be shockingly unsettling and brutal, yet the blood is not the point. Sequences such as the Zodiac’s murder of two college students near Lake Berryessa are startling not just for their graphic content and tension, but also for their rarity in the film’s 157 minute runtime. The sequence is classic Fincher, juxtaposing gorgeous framing and rich color against sudden, detached cinematic violence. Yet it’s a moment that exists almost in a vacuum. Instead the bulk of the film’s attention is squarely on its two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist who decrypts the killer’s enigmatic messages, and Robert Downey Jr. as crime reporter Paul Avery. Employees at the same paper, they have direct access to the killing’s lead investigator, Dave Toschi, played by Mark Ruffalo. Graysmith and Avery are emblematic of the broader public’s interest in the killers. The various rabbit holes they’re led down throughout the film, none of which are conclusive, reflect how complicated and seemingly impossible the case is to crack. The media is depicted as a means of inspiring the killer by drawing further attention, while also making meaningful progress to identifying him or her impossible, as one copy cat after another dilutes the investigation.

This sense of frustration, for both the characters within the film and the audience, is where Zodiac makes a bold break from convention. Zodiac is a film about a serial killer in which the killer is barely present, eluding the grasp of the audience. Intrigued by the stark violence of the film’s first act, their desperation for a clear answer mirrors that of Graysmith himself. As the film progresses, it’s clear that the main antagonist is the general public themselves, their interest only serving to undermine the case and increase the notoriety of the killer. While the killer’s presence can be felt through various threatening phone calls made to Graysmith, it’s an entirely different kind of terror from that delivered by Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees or even Fincher’s own John Doe. It’s an anonymous terror, whose mysteriousness only enhances how frightening the titular murderer is. 

By the film’s final act both Graysmith and Avery have surrendered to their own demons, Graysmith having alienated his family due to his obsession with the case and Avery having collapsed into alcoholism. It’s in these moments that the film’s cast shines, especially the leads. Robert Downey Jr. was a year away from his mainstream revival in Marvel’s Iron Man but over a year removed from his return to form as an actor in the excellent Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Here he plays an affable charmer in the film’s opening act and, through the stress of the case, devolves into a drunken burn-out. Both sides of his portrayal are equally mesmerizing. Gyllenhaal’s performance doesn’t have as wide a range but he balances Avery’s quiet intensity and vulnerability with grace. It is through him that the audience experiences the film’s theme of obsession and the fear of the unknown, resolving in one of the most potent and thematically appropriate anti-climaxes in cinema. The Zodiac Killer’s identity has slipped between the cracks of history, and all that remains is Graysmith’s and, by extension, the general public’s lingering questions. These questions contribute to the Zodiac Killer’s terrifying legacy far more than his graphic murders and cryptic messages. David Fincher understood this, and created a film that tackles how the broader public mythologizes a very bleak reality.

Locke Review: Economical Storytelling With High Stakes

Locke feels like a film of another era. While film technology has vastly expanded the visual options contemporary directors can use, effective minimalism and understatement can appear to have been lost in translation. Locke is a film that bucks against the trend drastically. The film’s story is simple; Ivan Locke is a construction engineer who must abandon his site in order to witness the birth of his child, a child that is being born out of wedlock. This is further complicated by Locke’s conflicting feelings towards both his family and the mother of his new child, in addition to unresolved issues with his deadbeat father. The film’s two main plotlines run parallel, with Locke dealing with the fallout both of revealing to his family that he has a bastard child and of abandoning the work site. The film decides to portray this expansive character drama in one location (a car driving on the highway), with only one on screen actor (Tom Hardy as the titular Ivan Locke). While on the surface it seems like a gimmick, Locke leverages the stylistic tension of the single location to dig deeper into Ivan Locke’s psychology than a conventional narrative style would have allowed.

The film’s style could not have succeeded without Tom Hardy’s incredible performance. Tom Hardy has a mesmerizing ability to flesh out his characters not just with his unique vocal inflections and quiet intensity, but also with his captivating physicality. Locke puts direct emphasis on this physicality to carry the movie. Hardy’s physical presence fills the space where other actors would stand in, and while the voices he converses with have character and motivations of their own, the film deemphasizes them in order to highlight his reactions. It becomes especially impressive when the dueling plot lines begin overlapping and Hardy has to change his vocal tone and inflections to confront every new complication. Without Hardy, there is no film, but he rises to the occasion and gives the centerpiece performance necessary to portray such a complicated story and main character by himself. Thematically, Locke’s story is centered on the downfall of it’s protagonist. The parallels between the concrete dump and Locke’s personal life give insight into his motivations. He is a man consumed by perfectionism, who slipped for one night and struggles with reconciling this mistake with his character. Yet as the film progresses we see how his commitment to his work has weakened his connection with his family. While he accuses his bastard father of not being there for him as a child in various monologues through the movie, he similarly leaves his children in a situation where his presence as a father is permanently diminished. In this we see the central contradictions of the Locke character, being a man so consumed with being better than his father that he inadvertently resembles him. It is because of this that he’s so obsessed with the fill going right. If he cannot redeem himself as a father, he can be redeemed with his final act as a builder, and fulfill his duty. Locke leaves the audience on a cliffhanger but its narrative ambiguities does not soften the emotional impact. Locke is a man who loses everything but his self respect, yet finds strength in the process of righting a wrong. What separates him from his father is the ability to take responsibility for his failings.

The Narrative Economy of Michael Mann’s Collateral

Michael Mann is a filmmaker obsessed with the potential of digital filmmaking. At the turn of the 21st century the entire industry had to decide the film format of the future. At the bleeding edge of this debate, Mann wholeheartedly embraced the digital format. He aimed not just to  replicate the texture of film, but to create his own new digital palette. It was a bold switch in format, but one that suited Mann’s visual style. The first film Mann made in this inventive new format finds him in familiar thematic and narrative territory. 

Once again, the seedy streets of Los Angeles provide the backdrop, and cold blooded criminals provide the narrative content. Yet unlike his previous films about contract criminals (his debut Thief, the star studded Heat), Collateral’s perspective is that of a hapless civilian. Jamie Foxx’s Max Durocher skews away from the complicated anti-heroes that dominate much of Mann’s filmography. Max is portrayed as a kind, honest man and a victim of bad circumstances. In fact his role in the film’s plot feels purely incidental. Instead the bulk of the action is pushed by the film’s terrifying antagonist Vincent, depicted with chilling understatement by Tom Cruise. The role marks a serious departure for Cruise and he plays against type beautifully. Usually cast as a likable everyman, here he’s distant and frightening. He’ll be understated and warm when it benefits his work, but when the hit occurs he is brutally efficient and inhuman. His performance feels perfectly in tune with Mann’s direction, and stands out as unique in an expansive catalog of performances.

The most unique character of the film however is Mann’s own direction, specifically the incredible atmosphere he lends to the streets of LA. The film is rife with breathtaking cinematography, from gorgeous airborne shots of the LA skylines to smoky jazz bars and fluorescent dance clubs. The sharp visual style translates to the editing as well, especially during the film’s brief but visceral action sequences. Mann has, for a long time, been one of Hollywood’s greatest action stylists. During a time period where the style of Hollywood action cinema was becoming grittier, more handheld and incredibly frantic, the action sequences in Collateral are composed and artful. Mann’s editing and framing ensures that the film’s myriad of shootouts occur with clarity and an eye for excitement. Yet  the build up to these scenes is just as vital. Whether trapped within the confines of Max’s taxi, or in the shadowy hallways of a corporate office, Mann’s directorial mission is to generate as much tension as possible in any given space. It is this attention to craft, both in the direction and the performances, that elevates material that on paper could appear rote into a thriller that stands the test of time.