[This is a re-post of an article from my retrospective series on the work of director David Fincher. These articles contain spoilers.]
Listening to the commentary tracks for Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room, you can hear in Fincher’s voice a slight bit of annoyance and frustration. It’s not quite bitterness, but there’s an acerbic quality from a man who’s exhausted and can’t help but lay out wry observations. The Panic Room track in particular conveys the sense that no one should ever make a movie because it’s a hellish experience meant only for masochists. But his commentaries pick up afterwards, and I believe that’s partly because Fincher found his true love: digital.
Digital completely changed the way Fincher made movies, and it allowed him to provide the precision to performances that he’d applied to all other aspects of his pictures. From here on, he sounds much happier, and when talking about Zodiac, it’s like a trip down memory lane as he recalls childhood memories of a serial killer who terrorized and tormented a city, and would never be caught. Zodiac is by no means a happy movie, but it’s one that feels like part of a revitalized director who found a picture that fits perfectly with his admiration for process, attention to detail, and the cynicism of how a search for “truth” can rip lives apart.
Zodiac is not a serial killer film. Unlike Se7en the Zodiac murders aren’t lurid or unnervingly artful. They are absolutely, painfully brutal. He is a force that disrupts both the idyllic and the mundane even though the lead up to the murders are always foreboding. When Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes) picks up young Mike Mageau (Lee Norris), it’s with a long tracking shot that feels predatory. It’s from her perspective, but the initial implication is that it’s the killer prowling for victims. When the Zodiac guns down Darlene and Mike, the slow-motion photography is absolutely chilling when played with Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (a song Fincher chose because he personally associated it with the time period). This killing is not made to look “cool”, and it’s given an extra chill when the scene ends with the way the Zodiac says “Good-bye,” to the 911 dispatcher.
The second murder at Lake Berryessa is also a disruption. Despite the beautiful setting, the colors are washed out but also clean. It’s like looking at an old photo, and not in the way of the 70s-style Paramount logo that opens the movie. The scene is off-center just enough so that when the Zodiac comes in, it’s certainly an odd juxtaposition, but not so far off as to be comical, which is saying something when you consider it’s a stocky man dressed in black wearing an executioner’s hood in broad daylight. And once again, the murder is absolutely brutal with Cecelia Shepard (Pell James) screaming as she’s stabbed to death.
The final murder, the killing of San Francisco taxicab driver Paul Stine, is perhaps the most “showy” as Fincher takes us on a long, overhead view of the cab making its way to Washington and Cherry before Stine is shot in the neck in the same slow-motion fashion as Darlene and Mike. Like the Zodiac, Fincher chose to change his pattern.
And those are the only murders in the movie.