The New Masterpieces
A look at the great films of 1990 – Present Day
Webster’s defines a masterpiece as…..scratch that.
A masterpiece is a film with no bad scenes….nope. Not that either.
To paraphrase United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography, I know it when I see it. Calling something a masterpiece seems to be a loaded term, as if labeling anything less than several decades old with that brush is either sinful or stupid. Maybe. But to act as if there aren’t a heap of works by the likes of Assayas, Almodovar, the Coens, the Dardennes or countless other that are worth cherishing as the incredible achievements that they clearly stand as feels equally foolish. Which is what I want to do.
The goal with this series isn’t to run down the list of best films of the past 25 or so years. The first selection isn’t the top of the pile, but rather a starting point. It isn’t that they don’t make them like they used to. They still do. Time merely hasn’t passed for us to celebrate them as the masterpieces they clearly are already.
Though he began as and has recently become once more a prolific director, there was a time when David Fincher looked like he might be a recluse. After a string of hits, critical darlings and a growing stature as one of the most prominent new voices of his time, Fincher had a roughly five-year span where nothing new appeared. Wowing and appalling audiences with Fight Club and bringing in droves with Panic Room, Fincher fans were left waiting and yearning for a new film.
When Zodiac arrived, it came with baggage. Originally thought to be a Best Picture contender for 2006, the release was delayed due to running time disputes between Fincher and the studio. It was finally plopped down with a March 2 release, the kind of date not usually renowned for cinema’s best. Upon its arrival, many expected something far different.
Based on the infamous Zodiac killings that took place in San Francisco during the early 1970s, many minds naturally wandered to that of Fincher’s breakout film Se7en. That 1995 hit featured Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as a pair of detectives trying to catch a serial killer whose victims’ ends would come in a manner inspired by the Biblical Seven Deadly Sins. Though not innately fantastical, Se7en was quite stylistic. While it didn’t feature the rapid-editing and speed of Fight Club, it had a rain-soaked palette that lathered the whole in kind of a mid-90s muck, along with a plot that resolved itself in a stunning, definitive manner.
Zodiac would be a far different beast and those expecting equal slickness, tenor and tidiness in narrative would be venturing down the wrong rabbit hole. What Fincher and his team produce is instead a labyrinthine series of clues to nowhere, with the cops, journalists, curious and nosey all getting just as frustrated as society gets when a case can’t be solved. That is a large part of the movie’s beauty, for lack of a better term. It is All the President’s Men if Woodward and Bernstein not only couldn’t figure out who was behind Watergate, but the masses never got the answer either.
Before diving into the ending and its own conclusions, the beginning is a superbly eerie place to start. Zodiac is a far less grizzly film than could have been predicted. After the scum and grit of Se7en, one could have easily have expected the story of one of the nation’s most well known murders to dig around in the dirt. As things begin, it’s July 4th of 1969 and times seem quaint. Streets are primarily lit via what’s emitting from neighborhood dens and porches, not to mention the fireworks blasting above. A couple drives to the local lovers’ lane, with the soft rambling of folk musician Donovan emitting from the radio. Horrors soon follow, as the pair is attacked in what feels like the pitch-est of blacks.
What is there is frankly displayed. Bullets tears through bodies. Blood splatters alongside broken glass. The old mindset is brought to the forefront; the dark is where bad things occur. This is basically a trick; a way for Fincher to deceive you into thinking that the light is a safe place to be. That is proven incorrect.
We are introduced to the films players, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessed cartoonist, Robert Downey Jr.’s drunken journalist and Mark Ruffallo and Anthony Edwards as the case’s prime detectives. Amidst all of this is another death, once again in the middle of the night. Soon though, we have another couple, only it’s daytime by the lake.
The sun shines down on a man and woman enjoying a picnic in a place they came to just the year prior. Times have changed though and we the audience know these are not the protagonists. Birds can be heard singing as the wind rustles through the tall grass. It’s as soft and intimate as Fincher’s earlier works were dank and dreary. An intruder of the pristine enters amidst the tenderness, clad in black and wielding a gun. Terror takes hold as the unwanted guest demands money and car keys, all while Fincher lets nature live in the background. There is no music. Fincher’s camera holds at a slight distance, ignoring close-ups, with the lake or trees always present. The scene almost diffuses, as the couple is tied up and the man in black holsters his gun. We then get some extremely tight shots, as the female half of the couple begins to hyperventilate, a bowie knife is drawn and we are all left with screams. A moment of picturesque bliss has become misshapen as howls of fear and then pain layover the soundtrack as the masked-man heaves his blade into his victims; Fincher letting the blunt brutality of it pound through you in what is quite easily the most disturbing scene in Zodiac.
Again, it is rather straight-forward. This is to some extent the serial killer film done realistically. Sure, history has come with those that talk to the animals, amongst other bestial acts, but usually the crazy is theatric. So too is the outcome. Here is where facts and the script by James Vanderbilt makes their face most prominent. Working from Robert Graysmith’s book, Vanderbilt and Fincher produce all of those procedural breadcrumbs we expect to lead to a conclusion. Somebody cracks the bizarre coded letter of the self-proclaimed Zodiac. It only leads to more clues. The cops and company get witnesses to confirm major details. Facts line up to point to a strange individual. Other facts say it can’t be him. At one point, Ruffallo and Edwards chief just walks to the camera and is if to tell us directly, after numerous hints that we finally got him, that no, we do not have our guy.
This obsession with knowing whodunit in a whodunit pushes Gyllenhaal’s character to extremes. We see him putting his children in possible danger, pushing his marriage to a breaking point and getting anxious around a small, rather old man just at the thought that this stranger could be the Zodiac. It gives the movie an intriguing energy, as it loops around suspects and back to them, making our own finger-pointing erratic and often as misguided as it is in the day-to-day.
Which is not to imply that the mystery and all that it entails are ignored or mocked by Fincher. He gets the appeal of it all, whether it’s the creepiness of the villain howling into the phone during a live television broadcast, or the sensation of a new lead. Much juice is rung in the latter, with Gyllenhaal rushing across different counties to connect the dots, learning that egos, technology and the pressure of being a cop make for conflicting success. In the end, the audience is left with no real answer. Our lead hasn’t given up, but accepts that basically, the viciousness of one man will not be comprehended, avenged or even resolved.