Story Highlights• "Zodiac" about San Francisco-area serial killer
• Film is director David Fincher's most mature work
• Acting is pitch-perfect for film that provides no answers
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- It took Hollywood only two years to produce a fictionalized account of the Zodiac killing spree that terrorized San Francisco in 1969.
Don Siegel's 1971 thriller "Dirty Harry" took the precaution of changing the Bay Area killer's alias to "Scorpio," but the M.O. was unmistakably Zodiac's. He killed at random, mocked the police in the media and terrorized the city with his threats. Scorpio even hijacked a school bus, one of Zodiac's putative targets.
When Clint Eastwood's Detective Harry Callahan finally caught up with this sniveling psychopath (played by Andy Robinson), he was only too happy to blow him away. The message was clear: If the cops hadn't got their man, it was because civil rights laws had tied them up in knots.
It's taken three decades to get to grips with the real story -- probably because Zodiac never was caught.
In fact, much of this complex case remains subject to debate, including how many crimes were committed, when they started and when they stopped. Officially, the Zodiac killer is linked to five murders and two attempted murders, but in one of his letters Zodiac claimed a tally as high as 37. And while insufficient evidence may have kept the perpetrator out of jail, it's obvious from director David Fincher's new movie, "Zodiac," that bureaucratic bungling and miscommunication between neighboring police districts played a larger role.
So it makes sense that the notoriously fastidious Fincher should take up this challenge. His film "Seven" imagined an insolently cerebral serial killer outsmarting the cops to the very end. Both "The Game" and "Fight Club" are constructed as puzzles; they're morbid jokes at our expense.
And in the five years since "Panic Room" he came closest to committing to "The Black Dahlia," another real life unsolved murder mystery. Even "Panic Room" seems to have appealed to him as a technical challenge, a trick to be worked out.
This is a long, meticulous film (2 hours, 40 minutes) and Fincher lays out every facet of the case in methodical detail, beginning with the second (or is it the third?) crime scene, July 4, 1969, and then skipping through the weeks, months and years as the mystery evolves.
In the past Fincher has poured on the atmospherics -- you practically needed an umbrella and a flashlight to see "Seven" -- and ramped up the shock value to provoke a reaction. But his work here speaks of the utmost concentration, patience and restraint. It is his most mature and coherent picture.
Shot in high-definition video by cinematographer Harris Savides, "Zodiac" is both matter of fact and strangely elusive. Though much of it takes place under fluorescent office lights, cutting between parallel investigations led by Inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), and crime beat reporter Paul Avery (an engagingly dissolute Robert Downey Jr.), the prevailing mood is an altogether hazier, amber nocturne, the darkness on the edge of town that falls on two of the three shootings.
Toschi is listed among the movie's credited consultants, along with several witnesses, experts and private detectives. But Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt take their cue from two true-crime books by Robert Graysmith (played here by Jake Gyllenhaal), a former cartoonist on the San Francisco Chronicle and a friend of Avery's who becomes obsessed with the case.
While Toschi, Armstrong and Avery are overwhelmed and ultimately defeated by its myriad imponderables, Graysmith can't let go. Eventually he zeroes in on a prime suspect, convicted pedophile Arthur Lee Allen (now deceased).
Even if the film is more circumspect than Graysmith's contentious books (four actors play Zodiac at different stages), the ethics of implicating Allen on purely circumstantial evidence must be questionable -- his fingerprints don't match those found at one crime scene; his handwriting didn't match; ballistics didn't match; and when his DNA was checked in 2002 that didn't match either. It might not stop Dirty Harry, but it should give the rest of us pause.
Whether you find this "solution" convincing or not, "Zodiac" is a fascinating procedural precisely because Fincher leaves room for doubt. He's at least as interested in how not knowing drives and cripples these men as he is in establishing definitive guilt.
Some murders just won't lie down and die. Fincher may not be what you would call an indulgent director with his actors, but he always casts strongly, and there isn't a weak performance in the entire movie. The balance and by-play between the experienced homicide cops is just so. If Gyllenhaal is the odd one out, shy and reserved (and younger too), perhaps that's why he becomes so consumed with putting this aberrant and abhorrent case to rights.
Low-key but all the more compelling for it, "Zodiac" is the first must-see movie of 2007.
"Zodiac" runs 160 minutes and is rated R. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
Jake Gyllenhaal is a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the Zodiac killer.