(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2007)
David Fincher’s Zodiac is a completely engrossing film, reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s classic procedural epics like Prince of the City and Q&A. Stretching over more than ten years, it charts the search for the “Zodiac” killer who terrorized California for several years from 1969 onwards (and was the basis for the murderer in the first Dirty Harry movie). The complicated but admirably comprehensible structure focuses on three main protagonists – a crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr.), a cop (Mark Ruffalo) and an editorial cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal), all of whom spend years of their lives trying to put it together, all paying a personal price – surrounded by dozens of other characters, often caught in bureaucratic hell (along the way, you learn quite a lot about the limitations of intra-state law enforcement).
Fincher’s work here is fluid and assured, but quite restrained by his previous standards, with little of the taste for grandeur of Se7en or Fight Club (just enough, perhaps, so you know he’s still got it). Ultimately this limits the film’s overall achievement: it’s not important enough to excite you on the highest level. There’s that theme of obsession, and the intriguing hint that the killer’s taste for melodrama is an extension of his cinephilia (the old manhunt movie The Most Dangerous Game seems to have been a particular inspiration), but these are really just vague flavours in a film that impresses you overall more for its doggedness, organization and tenacity (it’s unusual in Hollywood terms to see a film where persistent failure and disappointment are so prominent). Among many fine (and some nicely creepy) performances, Downey stands out, as so often, for simply delivering the best line readings in the entire business; by contrast the nerdy Gyllenhaal character, who seizes on the case as an opportunity for self-actualization, always feels more like a device than an actual character (even though, ironically, he’s playing the guy who wrote the book behind the film).
Shonali Bose’s film Amu has good intentions galore, almost completely undone by near-hopeless execution. It starts with a young woman visiting her birthplace in Delhi for the first time since she was adopted at the age of 3 and taken to LA. She wanders round, exploring her heritage, gradually realizing that her birth parents didn’t die in a malaria epidemic as she’d always been told; their trail ends instead in a 1984 riot where thousands of Sikhs were killed. This event, apparently carried out with significant political complicity and subject since then to an ongoing hush campaign, is obviously a worthy subject for a film, but by the time you get through a first half that plays like a Nancy Drew in Delhi episode, your goodwill is already exhausted. Bose’s approach is relentlessly superficial, with awful dialogue and plotting and unimpressive acting, and the ultimate flashback to the riots is hampered both by an apparent low budget and more seriously by a lack of real explanation and context. I should note though that based on surfing the web it seems to have been well received in India, and it doesn’t cop out by ending on a redemptive note, so maybe aesthetic merit isn’t the primary consideration here.
Staying with India, Mira Nair is clearly a much more accomplished director than Shonali Bose, which makes The Namesake that much keener a disappointment. This epic of two generations moving from India to America and then to some extent back again (some physically; others spiritually) is often shockingly slack and meandering. It’s based on a highly regarded novel, and perhaps on paper the authorial voice brought some greater coherence to what soon comes to seem here like an all-but-endless succession of life changes, mostly presented in the same well-meaning but ineffectual tone (with escalating weepiness content). The basis of the title – the inspirational role of Russian author Gogol in the father’s life, embodied by his giving that name to his son – seems here like little more than an affectation, and the film becomes increasingly clogged with flashbacks, to an extent that gets to feel self-regarding. Of course it’s smooth enough, and some thematic interest is inherent in the material, but the film is certainly light on specific merit.
The British comedy Starter For Ten could only possibly have been made because of its sole gimmick, to evoke the warhorse British TV show University Challenge, an incomprehensible geekfest that I used to watch with the same bewilderment as everyone else. James McAvoy plays a small town boy who makes it into Bristol University and then with unlikely speed onto the quiz team; he falls in love with a blonde looker while overlooking someone much more suitable; alienates his old friends and then just about everyone else; loses his way all round; goes on a shooting rampage before killing himself. Or maybe he finds redemption. You decide. The film has very few laughs but delivers the standard undemanding pleasantness, aided with lots of Cure on the soundtrack. I would like to take a vow never to use that phrase “undemanding pleasantness” or its variants ever again, but unfortunately I think I’ll be needing them.
The Aura is the second and last film by director Fabian Bielinsky, who died last year of a heart attack. It’s the excellently plotted tale of a dissatisfied taxidermist who reluctantly accompanies a friend on a hunting trip; before the first day is over, his friend has abandoned him, and he’s accidentally shot and killed the owner of the hunting lodge. It turns out the dead man used the lodge as a cover for a criminal network, and the next job is just a few days away. The taxidermist finds himself drawn into taking the dead man’s place, seeing a chance to prove himself at something, despite his patent inadequacy for the role.
The movie is a fine, deliberately paced thriller, but the real thrill was in how it started reminding me of Antonioni’s The Passenger, which is a high compliment. Bielinsky’s tone is more straightforward and gritty than Antonioni’s, but at times his film is as effective in melding inner and outer worlds, and The Aura is full of distinctive, perfectly placed twists and nuances. Bielinsky’s first film, the scam-laden Nine Queens, was even more intricately plotted, but the structure there was almost too rich – it was barely clear you could take any of it seriously. On the other hand, there might have been a lurking commentary there on the chaotic state of contemporary Argentina; an aspect that The Aura doesn’t get into at all. Just like Antonioni in The Passenger, Bielinsky’s next film - if he’d continued to get better - might have reclaimed that political specificity while still tapping an existential timelessness: a gorgeous combination for any film. But now we’ll never know.