My Favorite Fincher

Hint: It’s Zodiac.

Gone Girl was a big hit. The Social Network is a fine film. It certainly rains a lot in Se7en – and every dude you’ve ever met loves Fight Club – to such a wild degree that some bro created a dorky, offensive website in honor of Tyler Durden’s lifestyle choices.  What are you going to do… bros who miss the point are everywhere.

My favorite Fincher, however, is Zodiac.  Have you seen Zodiac lately? It’s so amazing! It’s so much more amazing than you might remember. In the last couple years, I’ve rewatched it a few times, and each time – there’s just more, and more, and more to find.

Of course, the story is fascinating: crazy mysterious, publicity-craving serial killer murders people and then taunts the public in code through the press until everyone and their grandma is involved in trying to figure out who he is – and they all have a theory.  It’s a super interesting story – and it’s based on the real thing – a currently open case in multiple California counties.

Even though the story is interesting, though, this is not actually a film about a serial killer – this film is about obsession, about having an itch you can never scratch, about the burden of seeking the truth. Throughout the film, you watch characters pass the torch of responsibility for identifying and catching the Zodiac killer as if they were passing around a disease that robs you of your sanity, your health, your job, your family, and everything else that you thought was important to you. The transformation you see the characters make under the relentless mental gymnastics required to figure out this guy’s identity is physical – not only in a gloomy facial expression and tight voice, but in hollow cheeks from forgetting to eat and crazed bloodshoot eyes from lack of sleep and too much reading. And Fincher does such a nice job of putting the serial killer into context throughout the film – of pointing out how insignificant these murders were in the big scheme of things… of how many unsolved cases linger in the ether in big cities every year – that this decade-long pursuit of one guy just feels so strange and unexplainable. Why can’t these guys move on with their lives? I don’t know – but it’s fascinating to watch.


Also – these guys I’ve been writing about are G-R-E-A-T, great. First, Mark Ruffalo is perfectly smoldering as frustrated San Francisco homicide detective Dave Toschi. Fincher establishes right away that this guy is great at his job – he and his partner move through the Zodiac crime scene that lands in their laps like two halves of one mind, picking up all the physical cues, diagnosing the event with precision and urgency. Unfortunately, his inability to catch the Zodiac killer comes to define his career, eventually landing him in an erroneous corruption investigation that nearly ruins him. Ruffalo’s simmering rage builds slowly throughout the film as we watch him age – and it’s tough to say if he wants to identify Zodiac because he just wants it all to be over – or if he needs to justify that the time and talent he dedicated to the case in the prime of his life wasn’t all in vain. Spoiler alert, but the twist eventually revealed is that he did catch the guy – at least the guy who the film thinks he was – and he knew it at the time. He just couldn’t prove it. When this all comes to light – it’s kind of cathartic, but mostly just makes me sad.

Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal

The other guy is Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, who watches the case develop from the very beginning: Zodiac’s first letter to the Chronicle, just a month after he claimed his first victims. Jake Gyllenhaal is wonderful in this understated performance – my only complaint is that he’s maybe a little too good-looking to be a believable weirdo library nerd, but – that’s not actually a complaint. I don’t mind. With very limited access to the casefiles and an understanding of the story that is largely pieced together by hovering over his colleague’s desk, asking around, and reading books about codes – Graysmith ends up solving the case because of his tenacity and willingness to sacrifice everything else in his life to just figure it out.  A clean cut “boy scout” with a good job at the beginning, Gyllenhaal’s blend of mania and exhaustion is palpable toward the end of the film – and the scene where he eventually confronts the Zodiac killer face to face is unforgettable. Also, a fun piece of trivia for you – the real Robert Graysmith went on to write five more books about high-profile crimes, one of which was Auto Focus. Look it up.


On top of all this interesting stuff is the crisp, emotive visual style that Fincher does so wonderfully. The visuals in this film are a little less overtly expressive than some of Fincher’s other films, which really works with the overall tone of the subject matter. And the supporting cast reads like a check-in sheet for the SAG awards: Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, Clea Duvall, Elias Kotias, Dermot Mulroney. If you somehow missed this when it first came out – or if it’s just been awhile – give it a spin again.  It seriously makes Gone Girl look like a clumsy soap opera crime story – or a really long episode of Gossip Girl.

Just my opinion of course. What’s your favorite Fincher? Sorry – is it Gone Girl?  😉

betsy midnight

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