Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
Perhaps the single most surprising fact about "Zodiac" is that David Fincher directed it--one might think that Alan J. Pakula had been raised from his grave and given a far larger budget than when he did "All the President's Men" (1976), or that Sidney Lumet had been asked to remake his "Prince of the City" (1981) with a hunt for a psychopath at its center, or that Curtis Hanson--an excellent thriller filmmaker who raised the stakes mid-career when he made his epic "L.A. Confidential" (1997)--had suddenly developed a taste for serial killers. Fincher, a music video director turned feature filmmaker, showed such taste early on; he first became famous for the grotesque "Se7en" (1995--about a man who staged his killings around the Seven Deadly Sins), but had already made an earlier film about a killer that happened to be nonhuman ("Alien3," 1992) and later, a film about a serial prankster turned terrorist ("Fight Club," 1999). Whatever the story, Fincher's camera seems to constantly seek out and focus on the character living or even temporarily thrown outside the norm (of society, of humanity) looking in, his actions dictated by his needs or obsessions.
A quick comparison of the two filmmakers should be instructive. I've always admired Hanson's attention to detail, storytelling skill, and gift for characterization, something that's kept him in good stead in films from "L.A. Confidential" to "8 Mile" (2002) to his latest this year, "Lucky You;" overall, he makes clearer, more coherent films than Fincher. But with Fincher I've always had expectations, often disappointed by his not exactly disciplined approach--"Alien3" was a shaky-camera mess, "Se7en's" plot was preposterous (genius killer who slays to make a philosophical point?), and "Fight Club" was brilliant satire that degenerated into comic-book ludicrousness (a worldwide conspiracy of bomb-planting waiters?). That said, there's a look to each of his films that often varied in tone and palette (from the ambers of "Alien3" to the murky grays of "Se7en" to the sumptuous sheen of "Fight Club"), but was almost always ringed by an encroaching, ever-present gloom. Few recent Hollywood filmmakers made shadows as menacing as Fincher and you suspect that if you ever opened up his cranium and peered inside, you'd find the world being viewed through similarly darkened lenses.