Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chasing Shadows

Jake Gyllenhaal plays obsessed about as well as Muqtada al-Sadr plays droll. In Zodiac, David Fincher's true crime thriller about the notorious Bay Area serial killer, Gyllenhaal is Robert Graysmith, political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who went on to write a book about the subject on which the movie is based, and I didn't buy his performance for a minute--not as an amateur sleuth on the case, not as Chloe Sevigny's love interest, not as a family man concerned for the welfare of his son, and certainly not in the film's carefully rationed moments of terror, when Gyllenhaal goes all skittish and bug-eyed as though he were auditioning for the role of Victim #3 in Halloween.

Not that Fincher doesn't share some of the blame. He obviously saw Zodiac as an opportunity to return to the genre where he established himself (with Seven) while simultaneously stretching as an artist by making a social statement about the effect of terror on American culture. The best sequences in Zodiac work as a nifty crime procedural, a multi-pronged effort to nab the killer that involve an investigative reporter at the Chronicle (Robert Downey, Jr.) and a pair of 'Frisco homicide detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards). The leads and false-leads, myriadic interpretations of evidence, petty jealousies and professional rivalries are all tautly conveyed. Less of a fit are the scenes with the killer himself, where Fincher can't resist cheap shock effects, like firecrackers going off as a prelude to gun shots for no reason but to make the audience jump. Fincher does these scenes well, and he humanizes the victims as well as a technocrat can; but in an ambitious movie like this one they're the equivalent of a cat leaping out from the dark.

Nevertheless, Fincher's sense of atmosphere is almost without peer. It's probably unfair to compare the night visuals of Zodiac with the Coens' No Country for Old Men, but even on DVD the former film is enveloping to watch (particularly in a long overhead shot of a taxi cab). And other than the lead role, Fincher's knack for casting is terrific: Downey fits his dissolute journalist like a glove; and Ruffalo gives his bow-tied, animal-cracker munching detective the proper gravitas. He's a publicity hound who cares.

Both actors, in fact, are so good that they have the odd effect of picking up the slack from Gyllenhaal while also underscoring his ineptitude. I don't mean to imply that he's always a terrible actor: Gyllenhaal was effective in Donnie Darko, I think, because the demons he faced in that film were internal. When he takes a more active, externalized role --like in Brokeback Mountain (where he was outclassed by Heath Ledger) and now here -- he lacks drive and falls flat. I don't think I would have bought Zodiac's endorsement of Graysmith's thesis with a different actor any more than I swallowed Jim Garrison's theories in JFK. But however one feels about it, Oliver Stone's film was a self-proclaimed "countermyth" that used Kevin Costner as the iconic center for an entire arsenal of multimedia at the director's disposal, whereas Fincher lacks a leading man to convincingly sell his tale. The end result is a film where we can't tell the conscious ambiguities from the moments of unintended fuzziness. With Zodiac, Fincher wants to have his myth and debunk it too.

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