Monday, February 18, 2008

The case file as art: Zodiac on DVD

Watching Zodiac in its director’s cut nearly a year after the original version’s theatrical release, it feels that much more remarkable, that much more singular, this film so haunted by the unknowable, so unapologetically embracing of tracing the intricacies of laboring toward uncertainty. While seeing the film in the theatre with a captive audience unsure as to what to expect was for me at least an exhilarating happening, Warner/Paramount’s new two-disc special edition somehow completes the Zodiac experience: presenting a movie driven by obsession in a package so brimming with commentary, supplementary data and contradictory opinions, invites the viewer to obsess right along with Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the cartoonist-turned one-man investigatory team whose exhaustive books on the unsolved Zodiac murders provide the story’s foundation.

The material added by director David Fincher only fortifies the film’s slow building of character, period and engagingly banal procedural detail –not to mention humour. The scene in which Captain Lee (Dermot Mulroney) and Inspectors Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) and Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) lay out their grounds for a search warrant not to a living person but a tiny speakerphone simultaneously mounts anticipation of a new break in the case and feels vaguely like borrowed shtick from
Charlie’s Angels.

Yet it’s the same details you saw the first time around that really deepen the chilling evocation of these otherwise disparate events linked only by shared trauma: the brief exchanges, alluding to complicated, intimate relationship histories, and even an unexplained sense of imminent danger, between the Zodiac’s victims at Blue Rock Springs and Lake Barryessa; the frequency with which we see Toschi eat, this man who’s life becomes consumed by Zodiac in turn seeking to comfort himself through consumption; the hysterical woman who claims to have been abducted by Zodiac (Ione Skye), hiding her baby in some bushes off the side of the highway at night; the sheer amount of time that passes while memories fade and research accumulates and gets filed away, sucked into multi-jurisdictional limbo. Just as no single member of the tremendous ensemble cast passes through
Zodiac without making some distinct impression, everything in the film becomes equally absorbing, boggling the mind with the promise of some grand interconnectedness that may not truly exist.

Fincher’s commentary track is illuminating both technically (he seems, perhaps to a fault, a perfectionist of the first order) and with regards to the director’s own emotional involvement with the film, tied to his growing up in San Francisco during the Zodiac’s heyday. It’s fascinating how a project that mightn’t seem all that personal can finally become a filmmaker’s richest, finest, most idiosyncratic and humane work, and it’s revealing to hear how Fincher himself made a concentrated effort to avoid any kind of formal flourish that would detract from the clearest possible observance of character and action. This lack of flash becomes a vision in itself, and renders everything else in Fincher’s oeuvre, from the genuinely creepy if over-adorned
Seven to the rather tedious Panic Room, a mere warm-up for the more serious filmmaking displayed here.

A second commentary track trades off between a laid-back Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., who are consistently amusing if not especially insightful (and Gyllenhaal kind of embarrasses himself by going on this long spiel about Raymond Carver when I’m pretty sure he means Raymond Chandler), and the power team of screenwriter James Vanderbilt, producer Brad Fischer and, most welcome of all, novelist James Ellroy. In sly deadpan, Ellroy boldly introduces himself as “James Ellroy, King of American crime fiction… acknowledging that this film is one of the half-dozen greatest American crime films.” Now that’s how you kick-off a commentary! (Makes you wonder what the other five films are.) Vanderbilt and Fischer speak eloquently about all the varied choices that sprung from their resolve not to show anything that didn’t have a surviving eyewitness. They also discuss the sheer weirdness of the possibility that Zodiac murdered cabbie Paul Stine, then stole his glasses, put them on his face and walked away from the crime as though disguised as his victim. Ellroy meanwhile interjects with articulate reverie over the film and some terrific non-sequiturs, such as his bizarre anecdote that illustrates why he hates Donovan or what he considers to be the moral of Moby Dick.

The second disc features a nicely put-together making-of featurette that provides a sense of the strange balance between fact-based minutia and pure creativity that went into every aspect of the production. There’s also an extended documentary on each of the murders and all the particulars surrounding them, and, maybe best of all, a shorter doc solely about Arthur Leigh Allen, the deeply enigmatic prime suspect who died just before he was to meet with police one last time back in 1992. New interviews with the pivotal Don Cheney and several others who knew Allen alternate between strengthening the case against him and poking still more holes in it. Criminology experts make a convincing plea for a practice of fitting the evidence to a suspect instead of trying to fit a suspect to the evidence, yet even if certain aspects don’t fit the profile for Zodiac, Allen remains a compelling scapegoat even in death. His long, ovular face stares at us from a handful of obscure photographs, giving away precious little, ready to have whatever foul notions projected upon it, still the centre of a mystery that’s been arduously compacted into what is finally one of the great films of our age.


Paul Matwychuk said...

Damn... I wish I'd remembered John Carroll Lynch when I was writing my Alternative Oscars article a couple of weeks ago. The effete quality he brings to Arthur Leigh Allen is such a brilliant choice--the louche way he holds his wrist or crosses his legs when the cops are interrogating him at his workplace, even when he's dressed in those greasy overalls. He's absolutely sensation.

This has nothing to do with ZODIAC, but I'm also kicking myself for leaving out Paul Schneider's work in LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, which is one of the most virtuosic "straight man" performances in movie history.

JB said...

Here, here... My man John Carroll Lynch gave us TWO terrific performances last year. Did you see THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE? No masterpiece to be sure, but Lynch gives a wonderful, extremely funny performance as a neighbour tormented by loneliness and a wife he hates. His affable pressuring of Benicio Del Toro's recovering addict to go running with him makes for some superbly awkward male bonding (outside of straight-laced cop movies and westerns, is there any other kind of male bonding?).

I haven't seen LARS, but I loved Schneider in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES, especially when he uses fire prevention techniques as material for seduction. In fact he's pretty much great in every supporting role I've seen him give, but I still wonder if he can carry a movie. You know I love all of David Gordon Green's films, but I was never entirely convinced of Schneider as the romantic lead in it.

JB said...

By the way Paul, I like your portrait.