RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 8: Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” (2010)


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The Players…

Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo and Max von Sydow.


The Story…

US marshal Teddy Daniels’ latest case takes him to a forgotten corner of New York’s fog-shrounded waterways. His assignment? Investigate the disappearance of a patient from a hospital for the criminally insane. But not long after landfall, it appears to Teddy his efforts are going to by compromised by the evasive resident psychiatrist…as well as his disturbing visions.


The Rant…

Ever experience déjà vu? You know, that feeling of uneasy familiarity, like you’ve done this or that once before? Of course you have. You’re having it right now. You’re reading another one of my screeds here at RIORI buttered with my signature ribald, snappy repartee. Welcome back!

Seriously though, before I delve into the déjà vu enigma some more, I think I need to clarify something. These reviews were reserved for films that “had a dubious reputation or lacked box office mojo.” Shutter Island definitely did not suffer from a lack of mojo. When all was said, done and tallied, this little film walked away with over a hefty $128 million at the box office. This little psych-thriller here had a budget of around $80 million. Not bad. Didn’t hurt that it was directed by Scorsese and starred his current protégé DiCaprio.

What did hurt Island in my view is based on this story I heard from a friend of mine. Let’s say she had an interesting experience when seeing this movie in the theatre. Seeing. Not saw. As in “during the movie proper.”

Hm. BTW, we ain’t talking about yelling at the screen as if the actors can hear, or some nabob yakking on his phone. We’re talking about a dissatisfied customer. If any movie, successful or no, could upset a viewer in frustration then the movie gets the autopsy here. That and another buddy of mine insisted I see it and blog about it. You’re welcome, Rios.

So anyway, here’s what she told me:

It was your typical Friday night out at the multiplex. The big deal release at the time was Marty’s Shutter Island, which I heard was Marty’s first psycho-thriller (Cape Fear doesn’t count. That was a remake). The turnout was big—full house. My friend found a seat at the back of the theatre; that what was left that night, the place was so packed. It inadvertently gave her the cat’s bird seat to witness what would transpire later on.

About halfway through the film, a patron, obviously displeased, got up and shouted to no one in particular, “Does anyone f*cking get what is f*cking going on in this film?!” This outburst generated a bigger audience reaction than the action of screen. He threw his popcorn to the floor, spat out a few more profanities and promptly stormed out of the theatre. I think she mentioned something about even Leo losing his motivation. One could make the argument that Scorsese’s latest film succeeded in creating psychological tension, but I don’t think that’s what he had in mind. Well, for the sake of this installment it sounded like a dubious enough rep for me.

Sigh. I wish I had gotten as torqued as that angry stranger in the darkness with his strewn popcorn.

I too, after sitting through this movie, had similar sentiments. And a feeling of déjà vu. I had seen this movie before. Or at least, this kind of movie. And despite the trademark storytelling verve Scorsese imbues into most of his movies, Island was based on very few original plot lines.

But before I get all bitchy, first here’s the good stuff.

I don’t know who the location scout was for the movie, but they did a brilliant job of finding an ideal setting for madness. The whole sanitarium compound has a great, Lovecraftian feel. Craziness dripping from every pore. Even the main characters seem a little…off, as though a reflection of the island’s inhabitants. Slow tracking shots makes whole scenes seem isolated from reality. You really can pilot Teddy about the complex with the sense of solitude. And not the kind you want. Creepy is the watchword.

There’s some brilliant editing, especially the flashback sequences to Teddy’s army days and wife’s tragedy. Things seem to flow pretty well also, albeit a bit quickly. At certain points some scenes seem rushed, especially when Teddy and his sidekick Chuck (Mark Ruffalo, who is a solid presence) are casing the joint. Speaking of acting, Kingsley’s performance is at his most sinister here, vacillating between paranoid and professional. This is a guy who you can’t f*ck around with, because he can see all and know all on the island. Shiver.

Second, the bad stuff. The main offense? This film is unoriginal. I could not shake that feeling of déjà vu watching it. I knew that this kind of story has been told before, and not just in the typical, snobby, “there are only so many plots out there yadda yadda blah.” No. I had seen this movie before, a dozen different ways. The best and immediate example I can recall is with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I could cite quite few more films (without revealing the plots) that have used the exact same formula that Island employs. Angel Heart for one. The Machinist—which I reviewed here before—is another. The whole psychological “lost time” gimmick has been used with varying degrees of success before. But it has been done before. You would think Scorsese would have figured that out by now.

Shutter Island suffers greatly from déjà vu. This all had been done before. And it’s a real shame, because there’s a great deal of capital Q quality in this film. The acting’s good. The casting great. The atmosphere is suitably creepy. But the film lifts dozens of tropes from other films that may have done it better. It doesn’t make sense knowing of Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of film technique that he cut Island the way he did. Maybe he was just f*cking around, nodding and winking to Hitch. I hope so, rather than f*cking around at the audience’s expense, not unlike represented by the anonymous, angry filmgoer’s philosophy. As for me, the only “lost time” I got from this movie was 2 hours and 18 minutes.

So…

Ever experience déjà vu? You know, that feeling of uneasy familiarity, like you’ve done this or that once before…?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Despite all the good things that hang on this film, the plot device is tired due of gimmickry and sloppy writing. Nice trying, Marty. In fact, quite trying.


Stray Observations…

  • “You act like insanity is catching.”
  • So what was with the Band-Aid?
  • Hey! It’s Buffalo Bill! He hasn’t aged too well.
  • Why is it always the last match that burns the longest? Yet another movie thriller gimmick. Scorsese’s copping to Friday The 13th now?
  • Hey! It’s Rorshach! He hasn’t aged well either.
  • “(whatever Chuck says)…Boss.”

Next Installment…

Bradley Cooper reads up on the Silver Linings Playbook. Fly birds, fly!


 

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 7: Martin Campbell’s “Green Lantern” (2011)


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The Players…

Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong and Tim Robbins.


The Story…

Hal Jordan, an ace test pilot, is chosen by galactic peace-keeping force the Green Lantern Corps to become their representative on Earth. Now wielding a mighty power ring, Jordan soon learns that with great power—

Wait a minute. That’s some other guy. What Jordan needs to figure out now is how to get the damned ring to work, not piss off his employer/occasional girlfriend any more than he already does (and excels at) and keep a malevolent space entity at bay from devouring Earth’s populace.

To this, flying untested fighter jets seems preferable, and a lot safer.


The Rant…

I’m a comic book head. I adore comics. I collect them and read them on my days off. Every Wednesday is comic book day, and that’s when I head off to my local comic shop, where Jeff, the curmudgeonly proprietor, waits with my haul. I go pick up the weekly adventures of costumed heroes the likes of Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Daredevil. All Marvel characters. In case you haven’t heard, Marvel’s had quite a bit of success in translating their books to cinema. I’ve seen a few of them myself. It’s no real matter, though. I prefer my superheroes on paper than film anyway. Call me a hipster (I dare you).

That’s not to say that Marvel’s cinematic endeavors haven’t been entertaining. The first two Spider-Man movies were awesome (I’ve heard the third was eh. It might be a RIORI candidate down the line). Iron Man was thrilling. Hell, the second X-Men film brought tears to my eyes (really, and shut up). I guess it really comes as no surprise than in Marvel’s 70-plus years of publishing, somebody with cash to blow in Hollywierd would get the smarts to do big screen versions of these guys in tights. It’s paid off well, too. Almost to a fault. In any event, Marvel’s been cleaning up at the box office, and good for them.

DC—Marvel’s “distinguished competition”—has had a harder time at it, so I’ve heard. In case you didn’t know, DC’s been the publisher with the longest teeth. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. Those lady and gentlemen.

Not to mention Green Lantern. My favorite DC character. The only DC character I followed regularly. Sure I loves me some Spider-Man and X-Men, but if you were into epic sci-fi action and intrigue, GL was the best place to go for many years. The pages were like Star Trek met Star Wars met Law & Order met Fringe met—right. That and a metric sh*t-ton of insane art. Green Lantern’s world—universe—was big with a capital big, and the writers and artists were very aware of the job they had to do. And did quite admirably for many, many years.

So when I caught wind that (finally) GL was going to make it to the big screen, I was both happy and hesitant. Simply put, most DC characters that make it to Hollywood get treated scattershot. Don’t get me wrong. There were the delightful first two Superman movies with the late, great Christopher Reeve. There were also the two Batman films with the brooding and surprisingly convincing Michael Keaton. Later on came the fantastic reboot starring Christian Bale. The successes with the few others? Not so much. For instance, I’ve already covered the up and down adaptation of Alan Moore’s (though he’d been wished to remain anonymous) Watchmen, which my wife, oddly enough, enjoyed by the way. To this day I don’t know how she managed to both A) stay up that late and, B) respect the character that was Rorschach) which…

Where was I? Oh yeah, Green Lantern…

DC hasn’t been as a hot a commodity for the silver screen as Marvel characters have been. But Hollywood must have been champing as the bit to get the glorious sci-fi universe that was Green Lantern to the box office. I hoped so. It had the pedigree for a fantastic sci-fi adventure, replete with alien worlds and creatures, engaging stores to unfold and, yes, a great deal of opportunities for CGI scramblings. Yet despite my enthusiasm for the prospect of GL being rendered on the silver screen, in the end-run I couldn’t bring myself to go the multiplex. Why? I mean, why man, why?

Cuz I figured they’d screw it up. The GL universe is so vast and varied that there would be no room, even in a comic book head’s imagination, to do it justice. That and Green Lantern ain’t exactly a household name like Supes and Bats. I don’t know many kids with bedsheets sporting images of Kilowog pounding Manhunters into rusty slag. That is, it’s not like I snoop around in kids’ bedrooms. Not since “the incident.”

Well, whatever. Shut up, kids. Like I said: GL’s a second tier character, despite being a key member of the JLA. That don’t mean much to Hollywood execs who—probably hailing from Warner Brothers, DC’s parent company—wanted to jump onto the Marvel money-making movie machine. I can almost imagine the discussion in that Warner Bros. boardroom:

“Marvel’s making a killing with all their movies!”

“Well, we’ve had some luck with Superman and Batman…”

“Yes, but they’re icons. People know all about them. What we need is a superhero that most folks’ve never heard of.”

“Like who?”

“Someone who’s flexible. Someone that we can warp.”

“Um, Star Trek‘s a Paramount property—”

“Quiet! What I’m saying is we need some cape that is unknown. Untested. Green.”

“Uh, sir? I think I have an idea…”

So then came the film. And our (ring) fingers were crossed…


Hal “Highball” Jordan (Reynolds) is a maverick and some would claim fearless test pilot. He’s always pushing the limits, the envelope and his luck. He’s cocky, callow and has an ego the size of Texas. But despite the reckless attitude, he’s pretty much a normal guy. Boring apartment, a car that he dotes on, tough job, girl and money troubles. It’s the makings of a rather simple existence, save the cool gig at Ferris Aircraft. Except for the occasional scrapes at work (most of which are his own doing), Hal’d never get picked out of a lineup for doing anything remarkable.

Of course, that’s his life on Earth. Meanwhile, in other distant parts the Milky Way, rather remarkable things are transpiring to jaunt our man into some pretty remarkable circumstances…

Planet Oa, the center of the Universe, a distance so far from Earth it cannot be measured. A citadel of justice, law and order for the galaxy. Home to the immortal Guardians, undying aliens of profound acumen in the balance of good and evil in the Universe. In their infinite wisdom they created the vaunted Green Lantern Corps, for great justice and to repel Fear.

Aeons ago the Guardians discovered that emotion is the most powerful force in Creation, and that energy can be divided into a spectrum of color. The colors could be harnessed in “lanterns,” a technology so advanced it seems like magic. The lanterns would serve as batteries for a Green Lantern soldier’s only and most awesome weapon: a ring. These rings are capable of channeling incredible power to enhance, control, focus by mind and generate astounding feats of psychical and physical energy made real. Their color is green, the color of Willpower. Willpower, the ability to overcome Fear.

Fear destroys all according to the Guardians’ logic. The power of Fear is vigilant and always creeping at the periphery for every sentient being in the Universe, waiting to strike. And it’s up to the Green Lantern Corps to flush it out. So while following orders, solider Abin Sur pursues a lead on some serious fear-mongering in a distant sector of our galaxy, our solar system. What he finds there may lead to the extinction of every intelligent being in space, and Earth is squarely in the crosshairs.

After his mission fails, Abin Sur crash lands on Earth. Aware he’s near death, he needs to find a new recruit to carry on the mission. And, you guessed it, fearless Hal Jordan becomes that new recruit. Now all Hal has to do is master the ring’s powers, learn to work well within the Corps, prevent a galactic cataclysm and try to woo his boss and on-again, off-again girlfriend Carol in the process.

Starting a new job is never easy…


There. I did the geek legwork for you.

I will warn and re-warn you that I have a soft spot for Green Lantern. No one was more enthusiastic than I to see the GL universe translated to the screen. In the final analysis, was I pleased? Despite all the bad press the film earned, I can only respond this way:

Sorta. Here we go.

The movie’s opening says it all, and is overall accurate by comic book history. Keep in mind this is coming from a comic book head to boot. The images are boldly ripped from the comics from the past decade. Shamelessly, I might add. That’s a good thing. Fan service. That’s a bad thing. Fan service. Never in my time that a comic book superhero movie needed so much dialogue and visual cues to explain what needed to be explained. Well, that with the assist of a lot of red wine.

Of course, I got it all within the first 12 minutes. I timed it (I am that lonely). And throughout the film they kept keeping on hammering the same note. Yes, Hal Jordan in a fearless pilot. Yes, he has an attitude. Yes, he has a smart-ass mouth with a demeanor to match. And yes, he has the critical ability to overcome fear (that key component to grant entry into the GL Corps). And that third thing is the film’s greatest flaw. Stilted dialogue. Ryan Reynolds should act with as little dialogue as possible. Fortunately, he does. But he does have to talk once in  while. Therein lies the tragedy.

Once and again Reynolds seems awkward here, unsure if he’s a pilot or a ladies’ man or a superhero. He’s only good as a physical presence, which oddly enough Campbell may have recognized since that most of the best scenes are when Reynolds is robbed of dialogue. Even the post superhero act of saving the day at Carol Ferris’, Jordan’s former flame and current employer, is delightfully cheesy and self-aware, so much so that Reynolds’ character is cut short. It’s pretty funny.

The film’s kinda predictable as far as superhero tales go. Reynolds indeed seems awkward at times, like his lines were written for someone else. On the flipside, as far as dialogue goes, Blake Lively is very smart, whereas the polar opposite, Tim Robbins as the Senator, as always plays sleazy very well. The best dialogue seems to be spoken by the supporting cast in Hal Jordan’s new sci-fi family (e.g.: Kilowog is mighty cool).

As if you haven’t figured it out, Lantern gets heavy on the exposition. How the lines are delivered is key in keeping this film aloft. Despite it being a sci-fi adventure, there sure is a hell of a lot of chit-chat going on here. I suspect it might have something to do with introducing an unwitting American studio audience to a semi-obscure superhero, and water wings are needed. Still, the chatter is at least lively, funny and relatively unobtrusive. It’s a tempered version of “show, don’t tell.” Yeah, there’s a lot of telling, but it’s in an interesting, bouncy, almost comic-booky way. Hey! Who’d’ve thunk it?

On technical side Lantern was directed (handily, I might add) by Martin Campbell, the man that brought us the very cool James Bond reboot Casino Royale and Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as 007, GoldenEye. That alone lends the film some props. Martin’s a guy who understands how a franchise works outside the proverbial box. Lord knows how much coin was laid out for him to direct this film. In the final analysis it was worth every penny. A smartly spent budget and solid directing goes a long way in a would-be summer blockbuster like Lantern, even if the revenue was less than stellar. In these days of big budget movies run amok with GCI and crazy locations scouted, every farthing matters. Considering Campbell’s steady hand, Warner Bros. was able to sleep easy, at least with that factor.

The greatest accomplishment this film can claim is being able to coax Ryan Reynolds to quit acting like Ryan Reynolds. Lo and behold, he isn’t acting like a smartass (prime example: Waiting) 24/7! He plays the innocent for once, and it’s a really welcome thing. I mean, considering the circumstances his character was plunked into, would you humble yourself? He actually holds back on the smarm and freaking acts a little! Y’know, with emotions other than smug. Right! Just don’t talk so damned much! Listen to your supporting cast! There you go! Ah, it’s like Sprite enema. Now granted, no awards will come of this, but then again, it was squeezed out from a guy who directed James Bond for f*ck’s sake. It’s such a nice change of pace you forget it’s Ryan f*cking Reynolds up on screen, slingin’ the ring, if only for a little while. In simpler terms, Reynolds made a decent Hal Jordan. Not good, but decent.

My carps with Lantern are mostly minor. Questionable acting, a few plot holes, the need to immerse yourself in back issues, stuff like that. Despite me picking on Reynolds (who does ask for it), there’s really nothing to get in a twist over. If you’re a comic book head however, the screen would’ve been pelted to death by errant popcorn kernels after the aforementioned 12 minutes. If you’re not, as most of you who get sex on a regular basis are, you can lean back and let yourself go along with the ride. Lantern is harmless, and feels like one of those movies that pop on F/X from time to time to fill space and/or kill time.

In fact, that’s just what Lantern does. It sure beats watching Batman & Robin again. Wait. Again? Don’t you people own a streaming Netflix account?


The Verdict…

Rent It or relent it? Rent it. Green Lantern isn’t amongst the hallmarks of, say Superman II or The Dark Knight. It doesn’t try to be. Then again, those two had smarter writing and acting. So what the hell, go ahead, rent it. It’s not so dumb and off the mark to be insulting to one’s sci-fi sensibilities. That being said, it would also be the first comic book film made that would ever need required reading. And reading sucks, right? Right?

Sh*t, I gotta get out of the basement more often.

…In brightest day…


Stray Observations…

  • “Ring. Finger.” Says it all.
  • Was the super secret lab scene lifted from the Stargate SG-1 set?
  • “Run.”
  • The green eyes against yellow eyes were a subtle but cool edit. Like I’ve noted before on other comic book adaptations, it’s the small touches that get ya.
  • Parallax is supposed to be a giant bug-thing. Just sayin’.
  • Hey. For you readers out there I personally recommend Green Lantern: Rebirth by Geoff Johns and DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke for a solid Green Lantern fix. This was brought to you by a comic book head. And don’t judge me.
  • There ought to be a sequel. At least as a chance to repair what was broken. There was a lot of wasted potential in this movie.
  • “There’s water in the tap.”

Next Installment…

Leo DeCaprio has to explore the mystery that is Shutter Island. As well as his memory.


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 6: Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” (2004)


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The Players…

Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, John Sharian and Michael Ironside.


The Story…

Industrial machinist Trevor Reznik has been suffering from insomnia for a year. His physical and mental health have all but wasted away. So much that when he keeps finding cryptic Post-Its creepily popping up in his apartment suggesting his next courses of action, he asks himself is it just the lack of sleep, or has his mind really gone? Who’s leaving these notes? What are they trying to say? And what’s with the kooky new guy at work who knows too much about Trevor’s plight? It’s impossible to keep it all clear.

If only he could sleep on it.


The Rant…

Ever have insomnia? Sure you have. I’ve had many a sleepless night, none of it romantic. And the next day…well, let’s just say that sleep dep’ makes everything really neat. The sunlight seems brighter. The sounds seem noisier. The idea of breakfast makes you wanna puke. Or that’s just your vacant stomach demanding caffeine. Anyways, you plum don’t feel like yourself. It feels like a second reality. The kind you wish you could wake up from.

Heh. Irony. Let’s meet our sleepwalker…


Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale at his most gaunt) has had insomnia for a year and is skeletal and grotesque for the worse. For real. You ever seen a 119 lb. weakling flex? The spine in such a context should only be seen by a neurosurgeon. Welcome Reznik. And weight’s not all he’s lost. A bit of sanity too. Like I said, no sleep. Makes work relations a bit difficult too. When an industrial accident occurs more or less due to Reznik’s neglect, it sparks a chain of events.

Enter Ivan. Yeah, he’s important.

As the new arc welder, Ivan makes an impression on Trevor. An all too comfortable impression. Big, burly and with a lust for life, Ivan is freewheeling, lacks pretense and enjoys giving Reznik a hard time. Much talk about work and happenstance occurs at the local watering hole often, and Trevor can’t help this pernicious feeling of déjà vu when chatting up Ivan. No matter. Work is work and play is play. Just don’t ask Trevor to go fishing.

What’s a chronic insomniac to do? Stop at the local airport café, have a cuppa joe and flirt with the graveyard shift waitress. It’s cleaner than soliciting the local call girl (Leigh) for a blowjob and a cold mattress. She seems comfortable enough. Make it a nightly ritual away from the noise and clatter from the machine shop. Was it mentioned that Trevor is a lifer in an industrial machine shop? Oh yeah, also the monotony of work is getting to him (hence the title for you slower readers). Or is it something else…?


Something else. If you’re a casual watcher of psycho thrillers, this film’s for you. Otherwise it requires an attention span. Like I said, Bale is a fright, both physical (especially physical) and mental. Quick to rile, slow to even out, paranoid and prone to rage. Like I said, the ravages of insomnia. What’s amazing about this film is how deep Bale’s commitment was to this role. He’s tense, intense and minus pretense (how’s that for pseudo-alliteration?). A tragic figure of his own undoing. His capacity for frothing rage in the face of paranoia is just a shade over the top. That’s a minor carp overall. But it’s also kinda handy since there is not a single scene which Bale is not in. You really ride along with Reznik’s character, through the ugly and the…other stuff.

The only problem with this film is the pacing, and it’s not by much. Bale is so quick to rile it becomes bookmarks for each chapter of the film. Don’t get me wrong, Bale nails paranoid anger very well, but when it repeats itself to the point of minute-on reaction, well the novelty runs thin after awhile.

Otherwise the acting was impeccable. It was difficult not to relate to any of the characters. Like I said, Bale embodies the sleepless nights and the trippy days we’ve all had because of it. He carried the whole film, and quite well and tastefully too. Strong shoulders, even in light of the juicy paranoia that Reznik starts to inhabit well too quick.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Although this is a piece of film that has been done before, a nice twist on the addled-mind paranoia thriller (like the Pacino vehicle Insomnia) is always a welcome sight. Now go get some sleep.


Stray Observations…

  • I read somewhere that Bale more or less starved himself for this role on a strict diet of only water, apples and a can of tuna fish daily. The director had to chide him into the occasional protein just for survival’s sake.
  • It’s hard to believe a year after this film was made Bale would don the cape, cowl and coolness that is Batman.
  • “Jesus Christ!” “I’ve tried him too.”
  • Nice tee shirt there towards the end.

Next Installment…

Uh-oh. Ryan Reynolds slings the ring as Green Lantern.


 

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 5: David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007)


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The Players…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, with Brian Cox, Charles Fleischer, Elias Koteas and John Caroll Lynch.


The Story…

A notorious serial killer known only as “The Zodiac” is on a creepy spree in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s left several victims in his wake and taunts police of his motives with letters and ciphers mailed to newspapers. It’s only when crossword freak cartoonist Robert Greysmith accidentally cracks the Zodiac’s code that both the media and the police gets a lead. However, following the lesson of history, the case still remains one of San Francisco’s most infamous unsolved crimes.


The Rant…

Let’s, you and I, talk about fear.

Okay, that line there is one of my favorites in the entire English language. I boosted it, not surprisingly, from an intro to one of Stephen King’s books. But still, let’s talk about fear, you and I. I’m not really talking about the fear of the unknown, although that’s a popular one and one of the most basal. I’m talking about the fear of being hunted. Like prey. Like you’re being followed. That liquid, paranoid panic you get at the base of your stomach. That you are one of a millions other souls our there that could, under the proper circumstances, end up no less that someone’s trophy. That eerie obsessed feeling, where the fight, flight or faint instinct should kick in at any moment. You want to hide, but there’s no place to go. You want to run, but you’re in the crosshairs. You are being watched, prodded, toyed with. Hunted. You are made to feel a victim of some fate breathing down your neck, almost literally. Haunted. The slight, breathless pants on your shoulder of a person or persons unknown that want to get you. Harm you. Even kill you.

For no apparent reason at all. You’re just prey. Game.

That’s what San Franciscans must’ve felt like back in the 1960’s when some hunter of men took to task terrorizing the Bay Area with the bizarre, groundless and still unsolved murders as the Zodiac killer. Part documentary, part psychological thriller, part one man’s obsession, Zodiac is David Fincher at the top of his game, carefully and quietly ratcheting up the dread level over two plus worthwhile hours.

It’s unfortunate that this film fell into the bracket of “poor box office” tallies.

Zodiac may have fallen victim to the “too intellectual” tag, or the long running time turned people away (seems most audiences have only enough of a fluid attention span to fill a thimble), or how the film moves at its own languid pace, possibly inviting boredom in some. I don’t know. Just conjecture. One thing this guy is sure of: Zodiac is a great, thrilling and sometimes rather scary film…


July 4th. Vallejo, California. A pair of teens out for an evening drive. Any casual audience member with a fleeting notion about the film’s source material knows that these two are the harbingers of doom for the next few hours, the Maguffins for the Zodiac’s being. The movies wastes precious little time in setting the stage for the overall atmosphere of the film: dread. Paranoia and dread. The drive-by that mushrooms into a murder scene (played against the trippy tones of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”) sets the stakes. We’re against the wall with a murderer on the loose. And we’re all helpless fools for it…


Dread is the watchword of this film. Not terror, per se, and definitely not serial killer horror like, say, The Silence of the Lambs. But dread. That looming fear of something horrible that could happen if you would let your guard down. Epitomizing this feeling is Robert Graysmith, portrayed by Gyllenhaal, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and avid puzzle wonk. Graysmith is the unlikely protagonist of this story (and also the real-life counterpart who wrote the book upon which the film is based), more or less tumbling over the Zodiac’s intentions by the anonymous threat letters that get mailed to the paper declaring the killer’s motives, intentions and nary a whit of his identity. Gyllenhaal plays skittish very well, like a kid on the outside of the club. That haunted look hangs on his face, exemplifying that dread as we the audience are meant to feel. As was said, Graysmith is puzzle geek, and when the Zodiac sends cryptic ciphers along with his threatening letters, the challenge of cracking the code becomes an obsession.

Greysmith’s aide-de-camp in this escapade is crime beat reporter, the effete and boozy Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr., in a role that somehow mirrors the character of Tony Stark he would portray a year later in 2008’s Iron Man). Cynical, crass and opportunistic, Avery plays the perfect foil to Graysmith’s boy scout like demeanor. Somehow they trade barbs with each other over the Zodiac’s motives and identity with each accompanying letter, as well as when the body count starts to rise. All of Zodiac’s intensions are posted to the Chronicle’s editors, leaving our intrepid newsies at the frontline of what the killer might do next.

Of course, all Avery and Graysmith can do is speculate and play around with screwy codices. On the frontline is Det. Dave Toschi, portrayed gamely by future Hulk Mark Ruffalo. He and his partner, Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are the cops that get the call about a murder of a cabbie in downtown San Fran, connecting it with the Zodiac killings. Ruffalo’s performance of Toschi is just great, unlike the wary wounded Graysmith, Ruffalo is the warm and steady straight man caught up in the mystery, just trying to do his job to nab the criminal at large. Ruffalo has the feeling of stability you need in this dreadful business in hopes that there will be an end to this mystery, even though the Zodiac case is still unsolved to this day.

Zodiac starts as a crime drama, and ends as a docudrama. The first act’s pacing feels a bit rushed, but it flows. For a crime investigation film, the pace has to be swift, but there’s a lot, a lot of info that needs to be core dumped on the audience to get what the hell is happening, and there’s a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it velocity that zips by in the first act. Fincher’s films are almost always clinical pieces of technical exactness, and Zodiac is no exception. It has all the hallmarks of a Fincher film, from the muted color scheme to the surgical precision of the camera work. It makes for an excellent documentary film, as if cut for a PBS production, but with excellent acting and a bigger budget.

The core trio of actors all play well off each other, which is surprising considering how different each one’s personality is. Graysmith’s boy scout to Avery’s rake to Toschi’s procedural give the audience a united front of cracking the code of the Zodiac, so to speak. Each actor has his place in handling the mystery, and although it’s ostensibly Gyllenhaal’s show, Ruffalo’s treatment of the film is what kept me engaged.

Not to dismiss Gyllenhaal. He’s just so great in this. He brings that haunted innocence he used so well in Donnie Darko to the fore here. As Graysmith, he becomes so obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac that he loses almost everything he holds dear, from his job to his family. He becomes his own pawn in the Zodiac’s game, almost to the point that Toschi seems to let Graysmith do his dirty work. Let the crazed kid hunt the identity of the hunter. The case dragged on for years with nary a break until it was all but swept under the rug. Graysmith’s crusade, Gyllenhaal’s obsession is what pushes the movie forward. The game.

The prey comment I made earlier may be the crux of the whole Zodiac m.o., both as crime and film. From what little I know about profiling serial killers, they all take some trophy, some winning from their prey. The Zodiac’s was the game. The toying with – hunting – other humans. Sport. The cryptic letters and ciphers. Game. Thumbing his nose at the authorities, taunting them, daring them to try and stop him. The short story “The Most Dangerous Game” is commented on often in the film, and is used as an analog for the killer’s motives. A key scene, and maybe the best in the movie, is the interview between Toschi and Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen has the history and hallmarks of a hunter, and dearly enjoys messing with the officer’s heads. Poking holes and creating new ones in the fabric of their investigation. This scene may be the lynchpin of the whole movie, if not the case at large. The play was the thing with the Zodiac. A game to play that ends up playing you. Making you question your safety, your security. Making you feel like prey.

Yes, Zodiac is a truly fine film, or rather three films in one. There’s the obvious mystery story, Graysmith’s Moby-Dick-like crusade and the game of the hunt. All three meld well into one very satisfying narrative, complete with all the custom touches of a masterful director at the wheel. Zodiac is a tight and sometimes harrowing journey, just like cat-and-mouse game the Zodiac put San Fransisco through some 40 years ago. Times of dread into paranoia into being haunted.

Or hunted.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Of course rent it. Zodiac is the kind of film you’ll want to watch on a lazy Saturday night with friends and then later again just to analyze and deconstruct not only the film, but the Zodiac mystery as well. Also, the movie’ll make you rethink crank calls ever after.


Stray Observations…

  • “Does anyone have any Animal Crackers?”
  • Melanie: “What’re you doing at a gun range?” Robert: “Reading.”
  • Edwards’ hairpiece is rather distracting.
  • Charles Fleischer who portrays Bob Vaughan was also the voice of Roger Rabbit. Really.
  • Toschi: “Is this true?” Robert: “I’ve walked it.”

Next Installment…

Christian Bale looses some sleep (as well as sanity) as The Machinist.