Fincher will probably change your life on his next outing. It will be a movie about a man aging backwards and his relationship with his lover. It will fold back linear time as we know it in movies, making you cry at the end, and at the start. I can sit for hours thinking about it, imagining how it will touch me, and already feel my life changing.
In the meanwhile, he does the best thing any intelligent director can do, and that is film stories that are meditations on truth — make films that are about films or rather the nature of film, and how we receive and trust. Above that he layers his stylish lighting and camera angles, which are sort of a modern noir.
He chooses the story of the Zodiac because it is an unsolved case and that permits him to explore all kinds of ambiguities about the real identity of the killer, and the different ‘versions’ of truth (and their authors).
The story involves a cypher. The Zodiac sends out notes written in code which get published in newspapers . This kind of stuff (a nested code to be decyphered) is self-referential: the nesting of a smaller mystery in a larger one. Like any other self-reference technique, the goal is to deepen the level of the mystery so as to equally deepen engagement.
We see the code cracked a few times here, and the decoded message references a movie, a few movies in fact. What they are is not important particularly. The point is that there is a new trend in American self-referential storytelling ushering in. Self-awareness is not a new thing in art, but movie-wise we are coming up with new subtler ways to handle it. I’m very happy about this, we’re eschewing the old drag ‘movie-about-movie’ or play-within, etc.
And who can decode the cypher? A character named Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall). He is a cartoonist, which is a shorthand for an image-maker. So in a way he is Fincher’s surrogate. But that relation is manifold, because his character is also the author of the book the script is based on, and we actually see him go about writing it in the last third of the film.
See DePalma’s latest project “Black Dahlia” for some of the same values as this in terms of self-referentiality. There is a new vocabulary growing, the tides are changing, and it’s only natural. But there’s always a challenge in how artists will channel this knowledge. The French New Wave gave us the most basic essays on self-refentiality. Godard who is often praised for deconstructing film brushed rather superficially on actual deconstruction. I like him at his most playful, and his later work, which are marvelous collages, is his most interesting to me. But today we have actual engineering of self-referentiality, tied in with narrative. The point is that people can see it and believe it is simply a story.
Robert Downey makes an appearance here…naturally. If you follow him as I do you’ll know that he gravitates around intelligent projects, many about this kind of self-reference, and his acting reflects this interest. It is a kind of self-aware acting where you see him project his character instead of simply inhabiting him. He is one of the many authors of the story, but leaves in the middle of the film after ‘writing’ his own version. He also is Graysmith’s initial encouragement, a sort of mentor/sponsor, naturally again.
And Clea Duvall shows up as well. She is very good but gets few projects because of Hollywood beauty constraints. But intelligent directors cast her because she knows how to anchor her place in the story. Here she only has one scene, but it’s a key scene, it’s the final annotation of how the whole movie is a reflection on ambiguous truth. She knows this, and if you look closely you can tell.