David Fincher’s films coil around an invisible center. His protagonists chase after something that they don’t know and can’t see, sometimes spending years in the hunt. In his first several features (following a successful career as a music video director), the center held, and the characters uncovered the thing that they were looking for. Ridley zaps the alien; Pitt and Freeman catch the killer; Michael Douglas solves the game; Norton sniffs the masculine high of his inner Tyler Durden; Jodie Foster and daughter finally break out of the room.
But then something happened inside Fincher’s movies, something roving and difficult to place. Five years passed after 2002’s Panic Room, and when Fincher’s next film, Zodiac, came out in March 2007, many audiences didn’t know what to do with it. Like Se7en, it was a serial-killer movie, and Fincher used many of his standard techniques, which Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas discuss in a fine video essay: wide lenses, deep focus, swooping crane shots, low-angle tracking shots, crosscutting between events in different locations, shock cuts that punch us toward unexpected spots. A visual whirlwind took us on a search for the killer, but unlike in Se7en, where he’s uncovered, Zodiac spends nearly 25 years without finding him. In Se7en, the murderer walks into the police station and cries, “Detectives! I think you’re looking for me”; in Zodiac, the chief suspect looks directly into the camera and says, “I’m not the Zodiac. And even if I were, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.”