Fincher’s “reel” vs. “real” police procedurals

Sunday, February 5th, 2012 Movies

Of course we all remember John McTiernan’s strangely Pirandellesque 1993 Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero, and how that movie shows two worlds; a “movie world” and a “real world” (and how, of course, they’re both “movie worlds” is a strict sense). There’s exactly the same contrast going on between two Fincher movies: Se7en and Zodiac. Both are “serial killer movies,” but they couldn’t be more different beyond that (aside from both being so profoundly Fincher-esque). Look at the serial killer hunt in both movies: In Se7en it only takes a week, and involves chases and shootouts, and is very lurid, and it’s the big character moment for both cops (one “about to retire,” which is as cop-movie as it gets; one getting his wife’s head delivered to him in a box, which is admittedly more unusual), and the killer is some kind of crazy genius who wants to get caught and has this huge social message for all of us. In Zodiac, decades go by, and everyone just gets older and tireder, and they never catch anyone, and the murders are pointless and tragic, and nobody runs or waves a gun, and the cops have to spend all their time leafing through filing cabinets and dealing with jurisdictional and procedural hurdles (while their hair turns gray over the years), and marriages fall apart (not through decapitation but other ways) and the prime suspect isn’t a diabolical mad genius; he’s just a fat guy with a record for child molestation and a string of bum jobs. (And the cryptographic messages aren’t decoded by the chisled, toughened homicide detectives; they’re decoded by skinny guys in labs with pocket protectors.)

If they had been made in the reverse order, would they have been as successful? Of course not, and not because of the public/critical awareness of the development of a director’s “vision” either; it’s just that, in 1995, the audience wouldn’t have accepted a three-hour procedural (inspired, as Fincher notes, by All The President’s Men), and, today, Se7en would probably blend in with the slew of movies it’s directly inspired and be regarded as a passable (if wildly implausible) thriller. It’s great to see the art form actually maturing in this way (or, becoming more “realistic,” whatever that means), after living through so many retrograde periods like the mid- to late-1980s in which so many tremendous artistic cinematic breakthroughs were summarily dismissed.