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March 6, 2007

David Fincher’s Zodiac doesn’t pack much punch

Dear Mr. Fincher:

I just wanted to tell you that I am your number one fan. Not in a Kathy Bates or even an Anne Baxter sort of way, but in the most serious way that a sane, non-murderous member of our community can be. Well, maybe a shade more than that.

I first saw Fight Club during my senior year of high school. I realized that people always talk about movies changing their lives, but I wondered at that time whether anyone actually mean it. Fight Club changed my life. Or maybe my life was in the process of changing and Fight Club arrived in time to explain and sardonically comment on it all. In any case, the movie remains one of the finest I know, one that I happily mention whenever asked for my favorite films, sometimes even before running through my pansy qualms about such lists.

I almost wish that Fight Club did not have a twist ending. That allows people to confuse it with much lesser works, such as The Usual Suspects or Sleuth, which rely on their twists for the bulk of their impact. To figure out the twist in either of those movies is to ruin any potential enjoyment one might get out of watching them. It goes without saying that such movies do not bear repeat viewing. Fight Club, on the other hand, is a stronger movie the second time around because the twist adds meaning to every scene that precedes it—not just in a lame “now I understand that confusing part” sort of way, but in a genuine, symbolically sound way in which every theme is enriched by the additional information.

So, you will understand, your new film Zodiac has been on my mind for some months. I have, to say the least, been waiting with bated breath. I started to worry when Zodiac was pushed from an awards-friendly December release to a studio-thinks-this-movie-sucks March release. Having now seen the film, I cannot quite say that my fears have been allayed.

Here’s the problem: Zodiac is a good movie in a conventional sort of way. From almost anyone else, that would be acceptable. I would be glad to have seen it. I would be happy with the casting of a few people who consistently turn in good performances but never break out the big guns. But not from you, David, not from you. You have directed Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter in two of the greatest performances of all time. You have even gotten a fine performance out of Brad Pitt. You have taken very conventional premises, even the end of a sagging sci-fi trilogy like Alien, and made interesting, unconventional movies.

That may be your defining characteristic as a director. You start with something almost astoundingly usual: another attack from those little green monsters, another serial killer-cum-preacher, another big twist ending, another gang of robbers preying on innocent people. You take these premises, and you squeeze really great things out of them. You make Alien3 enjoyable with excellent camerawork and a fine performance from Sigourney Weaver. You make Se7en a beautiful picture, albeit painted in blood. You make Fight Club about so much more than a big twist ending. You put Panic Room in a single location but develop a higher energy level there than any car chase has ever achieved.

Zodiac could have fit this pattern. It sounds terribly standard. It is, as one of those helpful and overused title cards tells us, based on real events. Real case files, even. Whoa, that’s original. Zodiac follows a serial killer. That’s not even original within your limited oeuvre! Zodiac features Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr. It’s not like they aren’t the current kings of prestige Hollywood projects.

So, I’m holding my breath here, waiting for you to take these standard elements and make something unusual and memorable and—dare I hope?—a little life-changing. But you are largely absent and let the usual suspects make a movie nearly as usual as, well, The Usual Suspects. Nearly. Zodiac is a good movie. I would happily see it again. To do it justice, I should mention that it is better than Alien3. But where that movie represented an up-and-coming director slyly slipping his brilliance into a drab sequel, Zodiac represents an apparently over-the-hill director making a movie that almost anyone could have made. (And by anyone, I mean anyone in the 99th percentile of film-making skills, which is still a lot of people.)

I could do without the self-conscious hints that you are still directing. There is one shot in which a building is erected from start to finish in about 30 seconds. It shows, I guess, the passage of time in the tedium of finding a serial killer. Leaving in a potentially brilliant shot like that when all that surrounds it is normal and unchallenging is like writing “From Santa” on all your kids’ gifts the year after they discover that Mr. Claus is an invention. For shame, David Fincher. I thought you were Santa. It turns out you are just a loving parent of film. There really is no comparison, now is there?