David Fincher has crafted a masterpiece in Zodiac, and while much can be said about the film's visual construction, it is the narrative storytelling that interests me most. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt have tossed the conventions of the Hollywood narrative aside to weave a tale that bounces back and forth between multiple protagonists, conflicting points of view, and pieces of a puzzle that can never be answered. The film concentrates on one character thread while ignoring others for extended stretches of time, only to reverse the concentration later. It offers setups without payoffs, payoffs without setups, and plenty of loose ends and leads that can never be followed. It's a long movie, full of protracted temporal gaps. In some ways it plays more like a collection of short stories wedged between newspaper clippings than it does a big-budget studio picture.
Fincher is like the cinematic equivalent of a postmodern pop singer. He's Britney Spears if she had a Ph.D. in Continental Philosophy. Fincher plays within the populist forms and subverts them at the same time. With Zodiac, he subverts the "serious" film. There's no "W" Arch Plot in Zodiac. There's no Three Act structure, no beginning and no end, just an infinite middle in search of an impossible opening and closing act. To imply a start and a finish is to imply knowing, and Zodiac never claims to know. Its narrative brilliance is its transparent confession of not-knowing. Its purpose is not catharsis but to ask what is to be done about the absence of catharsis.
I have a hunch that mainstream audiences will react poorly to this movie. They'll lose track of the threads, get bored, get lost, grow tired and irritable, and most of all, they will resist the open ending. As Robert McKee writes in Story, "Most human beings believe that life brings closed experiences of absolute, irreversible change; that their greatest sources of conflict are external to themselves; that they are the single and active protagonists of their own existence; that their existence operates through continuous time within a consistent, causally interconnected reality; and that inside this reality events happen for explainable and meaningful reasons." McKee is right that most human beings believe this. Zodiac exists to remind us that, in this particular regard, most human beings of woefully stupid. My hope is that cinema exists not only to entertain audiences but to educate them, particularly to educate them on how to be an audience, that is, how to see the messiness of life reflected in the mirror of the cinematic image.
On a visual note, I love that Fincher shot Zodiac in HD. It underlines the point: this is not a film about film but a film about what film can tell us about real life. Zodiac is a film that asks you to challenge your expectations of a story. If you're not up for that, you'll find plenty of friends waiting for you in the theater projecting Wild Hogs.