Last week I talked about how the opening of The Thing was its weakest moment. My love of Zodiac, a film that before writing this I’d only seen once, rests on the lasting memory of its opening scene. The good Sam Lewis spent a lot of last December talking me round to the idea of pure cinematic joy, the thrill of just watching something ambitious unfold before you, on a huge canvas screen, and it’s moments like this that I understand him.
It’s a scene that lasts under a a minute, real-time, in a film that runs for one hundred and fifty seven. And in that time it covers a lot of ground.
It’s a single tracking shot, framed by the side window of a car, scanning past a row of suburbans homes on July 4th, as fireworks explode overhead. People go about their lives on a series of front lawns, setting off roman candles, having BBQs, or playing with sparklers, as the smooth nothingness of Three Dog Night’s Easy To Be Hard washes over you. It’s effortless but impressive, featuring clearly meticulous choreography without ever presenting itself as such.
It reminds us that David Fincher is a director deeply interested in stylistic flourishes, while also laying out that it’s not going to be like before. Zodiac is the film where Fincher, who got his start directing Madonna videos, more or less drops the style that made him famous in favour of a more subtle approach, pushing the characters and narrative to the fore.
That’s captured a few scenes along, in the credit sequence, something Fincher is a little famous for, from Panic Room’s architectural typography, pushing the words themselves against the huge skyscrapers, to Fight Club’s race through the human brain. Zodiac, meanwhile, has tiny, uncapitalised captions in the bottom left of the screen, over an unassuming scene of a father taking his son to school and driving to work. It’s just a naturalistic human film, digesting the narratively-similar genre work of Se7en into something more real.
It lays out the world of the film easily, softly, so you’re immersed in the era before you’ve even stopped marvelling at the pretty fireworks. Knowing the context of the film you’re about to dive into, it’s a sharp contrast, especially when set alongside the very next scene, the sudden murder of two teenage lovers. Without any context, it’s just a beautiful piece of cinematic joy.
…Oh, yeah, and then the film continues for another hundred and fifty six minutes, which are mostly brilliant. But, if you’re anything like me, your mind is still swimming trying to process the sheer magnificence of that first one.