Friday, March 09, 2007

No clear signs in "Zodiac"; "Breach" shows bureaucratic face of evil


directed by David Fincher
starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, Philip Baker Hall, Dermot Mulroney, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch, Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, many others

As serial killers go, the Zodiac, more than most, was a tease. At once maddeningly elusive and insatiably greedy for attention, the man who terrorized northern California throughout the 1970s committed three brutal sets of murders and claimed responsibility for many more that followed—yet no conclusive evidence has ever supported the majority of his claims. He loved puzzles and led police, press, and public a convoluted chase through a series of cryptograms laden with codes and allusions—yet none of his puzzles, even when solved, ever revealed anything substantive about his identity. He made threats on children that set the nerves of every Bay area parent permanently on edge—yet never made good on these threats.

Thus, the Zodiac is simultaneously one of the most fascinating and frustrating figures perhaps ever to be invoked on screen. Director David Fincher isn’t the first to try, but he may be the first who’s done justice to this dual quality of the very real murderer who’s also, in all senses, a mere tantalizing cipher. The result is a film that serves as both an advancement and a subtle critique of the flashy, hollow, and fundamentally tidy thrillers (“Seven,” “Fight Club,” “Panic Room”) that put Fincher on Hollywood’s “It” List.

However, it’s also a film that ultimately lacks a coherent sense of purpose. “Zodiac” may wear the (occasionally grisly) trappings of a killer-thriller or crime procedural, but because it’s based on an unsolved case, it doesn’t build towards resolution. Waves of tension crescendo ominously, only to subside without either pattern or release; promising leads are dropped, seemingly forgotten, then picked up again, only to end in a cold trail; while potentially crucial clues are only checked out for the first time years after they first came to light. All this is probably intended as a deliberate reflection of the effect the Zodiac killer had on the public consciousness over the course of two decades, and the messy, unwieldy nature of the investigation that failed to track him down. But its effect on the film is a recurring sense of deflation and a curious feeling of narrative aimlessness. Moreover, while Fincher seems to be principally interested in the psychological impact of the mystery on the men who became involved with it, he doesn’t altogether succeed in conveying why and how it affected them so profoundly.

Hard to say why. It’s certainly not for want of effort or talent in the acting department, though the actor who eventually emerges as the lead (Jake Gyllenhaal) is frankly the weakest link in the cast. Gyllenhaal stars as Robert Graysmith, the editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle whose fascination with the Zodiac eventually led him to research and write the books on which the film was largely based. Gyllenhaal is appealing enough, and fits the bill initially as the fresh-faced, socially awkward Eagle Scout who wants to get to the bottom of the mystery. Unfortunately, his Graysmith never grows any older, either in appearance or in affect, which detracts from his portrait of a man who over the years gives himself over completely to his obsession.

For better or for worse, Gyllenhaal is consistently upstaged by both Mark Ruffalo, terrific as always as Dave Toschi, the slick yet conscientious celebrity cop assigned to investigate the Zodiac’s homicides, and Robert Downey, Jr. as Graysmith’s loose-cannon colleague Paul Avery, the slick yet conscientious reporter for the Chronicle whose gradual crackup—aided by alcoholism and substance abuse—seems to be related to his attempts to assert mastery over the Zodiac story. So we’re led to infer, anyway, yet the strength of Downey’s performance is never quite matched by the development of his character: there's no real illumination of what exactly about the case causes him to unravel. Ruffalo’s Toschi fares the best in this respect, bolstered by able supporting turns by the underrated Anthony Edwards as Toschi’s partner and Dermot Mulroney as their superior. Another standout is John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen, the prime suspect in the case, who has some riveting and memorably creepy scenes with both cops and with Graysmith.

Fincher pays meticulous homage to the films of the ’70s, most obviously “All the President’s Men,” and gets the period detail of the era down pat—from the drab hues of brown, yellow, and olive-green that furnished everything from bedroom to boardroom, to a truly hideous checked jacket that achieved the unthinkable feat of making me want to avert my eyes from Mark Ruffalo. Yet the movie, despite its ambitiousness and dour good looks, lacks the basic thrust that lay beneath the narrative and textural density of the classics it seems to salute. The problem may be that “Zodiac” is fundamentally a movie about getting bogged down; perhaps unavoidably, it succumbs to the force it seeks to explore.


Also saw:


directed by Billy Ray
starring Chris Cooper, Ryan Philippe, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert

Based on the true story of one of the most unfathomable turncoats in FBI history, “Breach” is, in every sense of the word, a solid movie: solidly conceived, solidly executed, solidly acted. That means slow going at first, as director Billy Ray takes quite a bit of time and care in laying the foundations of the culture that produced such a figure as Robert Hanssen. But patience—both Ray’s and the viewer’s—ultimately pays off, with what feels like a completely true and accurate picture of the colorless, seemingly windowless federal bureaucracy tasked with managing (or mismanaging) our national intelligence. It probably helped that Ray consulted closely with the real Eric O’Neill (played in the movie by Ryan Philippe), the agent-in-training who helped turn Hanssen in. The film’s other ace card is Chris Cooper, who delivers a chilling, totally credible performance as the man who caused unprecedented damage to the nation’s security, yet who to this day remains fundamentally an enigma. Mid-level bureaucrat, master of counter-intel, technophile, rigid Catholic, sexual pervert, traitor to his country, Cooper’s Hanssen hints at deep-lying motives, vexations and mental instabilities without diminishing the essentially creepy and unknowable nature of his character. Near the end of the film, he observes that why he did what he did doesn’t matter - only the fact that he did it. True enough; yet the strength of “Breach” lies in its ability to make us feel otherwise.



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