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Zodiac   B+

Paramount Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Fincher
Writer: James Vanderbilt (based on the book by Robert Graysmith)
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, John Carroll Lynch, Dermont Mulrony.

Review by Rob Vaux

Police work, we are often assured, is tedious business. There are no brilliant sleuths trapping murderers through ingenious leaps of logic or the oh-so-convenient DNA evidence of CSI and its ilk. It's mostly legwork -- following leads, pursuing lines of inquiry, asking question after question until a likely suspect begins to emerge -- and is marked more by its methodical plod through the details than the ingenious excitement television would have us believe. Zodiac concerns itself with the minutia of that process, revealing not so much the hunt for a serial killer as the untold tiny bits that make up that hunt, and the toll their collective weight can take on those who gather them. Director David Fincher has already delivered a classic serial-killer film (Seven), and though this effort matches that work's sepia-toned intensity, the final results are something entirely different.

In this case, the killer was real, slaughtering at least seven people in Northern California some 35 years ago before slowly vanishing into a haze of half-formed suspicions and general ennui. He became notorious for his taunting letters sent to the press, a move that both cemented his notoriety and complicated efforts at his capture. Rather than focusing on the gruesome fascination of the crimes, Zodiac illustrates the staggering job those on the other end had of determining whodunit. The problem, it tells us, was not the absence of facts. Quite the opposite: there were so many pieces of information that sorting the real clues from the mountains of incidental dross could drive someone mad.

Four men are tasked with that Herculean challenge, some by choice, some by profession. Two San Francisco police officers, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) spearhead the case after the killer strikes in their jurisdiction, while a pair of newsmen, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), pursue it for reasons of their own. Avery is something of a brilliant fuckup: alcoholic and insubordinate, but hungry for the spotlight that a story like this can provide. Graysmith is his polar opposite: indeed, he's not even a reporter, just a political cartoonist with a knack for puzzles. The Zodiac's letters -- delivered along with a strange cipher that he dares the newspaper to publish -- strike a chord in the illustrator's mind, and what begins as a professional interest soon morphs into full-blown obsession. The police, for all their detachment, share it to a certain extent, their efforts both helped and hindered by the Zodiac's courting of the press and Avery's eagerness to exploit that for personal gain.

In Fincher's hands, their search becomes a long crawl through a maze of half-formed theories and circumstantial clues. The killer strikes seemingly at random, with months or years going by between incursions. His victims match no discernable type, and are murdered by a variety of means. Seven victims are known for certain, but dozens of others are attributed to the killer, along with hundreds of faux confessions from publicity-hungry nuts. The killings take place in multiple jurisdictions, demanding the involvement of several police departments who never properly coordinate their efforts. Suspects arise at times -- notably Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), a disturbed man who fits many aspects of the profile -- but none of them can be conclusively tied to the slayings. And public interest waxes and wanes over the years, rising to a fever pitch when a new victim is found only to drop off again as the details fade.

Fincher truncates the time admirably, presenting disjointed incidents as a smooth whole without losing the fact that the characters and circumstances change greatly from scene to scene. The effect is subtle, but it gets under our skin with the same power that the Zodiac himself holds over those who pursue him. One by one, the search consumes them, spinning out into frustrating questions that never find a satisfying answer. Armstrong requests a transfer, while Avery slowly self-destructs, convinced that the Zodiac may have fingered him as the next victim. Only Graysmith continues the quest -- long after the killings have died off -- convinced that the next tantalizing bit of fact will bring the whole picture into focus.

Zodiac augments their quixotic efforts with a large ensemble of interesting supporting characters and a fine eye for historical detail. We periodically depart from the search itself to focus on the killer as he stalks his victims -- providing periodic shots of terrifying adrenaline -- but most of the film takes place in the newspaper bullpens, or working the facts with the police. Strong performances from the four principles help us slip effortlessly into their shoes, sharing their fascination and urging them to keep looking. The tone echoes that of many vérité thrillers of the era, such as The French Connection or All the President's Men. Indeed, it's Fincher's refusal to coat his tale with postmodern irony that lends Zodiac its strength: evoking the mood of the time without reducing it to a punch line (despite a few well-timed moments of dark humor).

That may be more important than it first appears, because the film can test one's patience. At over two-and-a-half hours, it often gets lost down the same rabbit hole as its characters. The fact that it holds us rapt despite such wandering speaks to Fincher's expert construction, which maintains its tautness even when the narrative struggles to focus. But then that's part of the point. The meandering nature of the case defies the kind of easy closure that most mainstream movies deliver. A lesser filmmaker would reduce things to a tight arc, then simply finger a suspect and say, "There's your man, officer." Zodiac certainly has its suspicions, but it's too smart to state anything conclusive. Far more interesting, it tells us, is the pull such figures have on us, and how the enticement of a lingering enigma can find its own sort of insanity. The workaday grind of its heroes gives it a unique feeling that few thrillers can match -- charting the sad course of those who look into the abyss and can never quite convince themselves that it isn't looking back.

Review published 03.02.2007.

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