Zodiac (2007) VS Panic Room (2002), David Fincher [4/5 vs 3.5/5]
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
In the late 90s and early 2000s, David Fincher had one of the most immediately recognizable visual styles in the thriller genre and in American cinema at large. In scenes with dialogue, he very rarely moved his camera, using almost no handheld shots and shooting only on tripods (as seen in 1995's Se7en). In establishing shots and action sequences, the camera became omniscient, almost "magic" as it floated through walls and levitated over great heights, losing any sense that it was operated upon by physics or by human intervention. And finally he was very conservative with close-up shots, saving them for wallops of emotional emphasis. These stylistic choices give two of his early 2000s films, Zodiac and Panic Room, a visual niche in the genre.
In Panic Room (2002), a chess game-like cat-and-mouse thriller starring Jodie Foster, Fincher works with cinematographers Darius Khondji (Uncut Gems, Midnight in Paris) and Conrad W. Hall (Olympus Has Fallen, Punisher) to achieve perhaps the peak of this "magic camera" style where the frame slides through keyholes and winds down staircases to follow the invading robbers as they scale and breach Foster's Upper West Side townhouse. This camera is more acrobatic than in Zodiac (2007), where Fincher worked with cinematographer Harris Savides (The Game, American Gangster) for a more grounded visual style that gave preference to dialogue over metaphysical camera movement.
In Zodiac, however, James Vanderbilt's script shines, lending impressively detailed characterization and differentiation to the three leads (Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robert Downey Jr.) down to their choice of blue, fruity drink orders and their individual relationships with their wives. After the 157 minute runtime, the viewer could name each character based off of a random personality trait; this is the mark of a skilled screenwriter and storyteller. Roger Ebert on Zodiac: "What makes Zodiac authentic is the way it avoids chases, shootouts, grandstanding and false climaxes, and just follows the methodical progress of police work... He [Fincher] seems to be in reaction against the slice-and-dice style of modern crime movies; his composition and editing are more classical, and he doesn't use nine shots when one will do."
Ultimately, although the visual panache is heightened in Panic Room, it is for Zodiac's brilliant characterization and obsessive detective casework that Fincher achieves his status as a maestro of true crime. Jonathan Rosenbaum on Panic Room: "It’s set up as a stylish exercise in suspense but, barring one or two fancy camera movements, doesn’t succeed as either style or suspense; it’s mainly a matter of applied mechanics." Panic Room: 3.5/5, Zodiac: 4/5, strongly recommend for its riveting mystery thriller elements.