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Reality's mundane exploration excites: dogged determination sometimes comes up short, but not in David Fincher's latest thriller, Zodiac.

David Fincher, the director whose grotesquely gripping film Se7en was one of the defining movies of the 1990s, has returned to the fertile ground of serial killing with his new film, Zodiac, and it's a wonder what 10-plus years has done to the perspective of one of the great technicians working in Hollywood. Whereas Se7en (and its equally graphic followup, Fight Club), were all about unravelling elaborately crafted mysteries (like what was in the box in the movie's final harrowing scene), Zodiac is all about latching on to a real-life murder mystery and exploring the mundane within this reality.


The Zodiac Killer is a media-loving nut job who committed as many as a dozen murders in the San Francisco area, beginning in late 1969. That city, still basking in the "Summer of Love," and the Zodiac murders, mostly of young couples parked in isolated areas, quickly dispatched any lingering notions about the Bay Area being the home of peace and love. As the killer taunted police with a series of self-promotional letters, complete with ciphers, the city was gripped with fear as he remained at large.

Fincher invites us into this scenario via the observations/obsession of San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who becomes involved as the Zodiac's letters hit his paper's editor's desk. While the job of reporting on the story falls to hard-drinking crime reporter Paul Avery (a note-perfect Robert Downey Jr.), it's Graysmith who becomes enthralled by the intricacies of the killer's modus operandi. The task of investigating the killer falls to Inspector Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a San Fran cop alleged to be the inspiration for Dirty Harry. As weeks, then years, pass, the killings and the taunts diminish. Avery retreats to the bottle, Toschi slouches away from his failure to capture the Zodiac, and only the cartoonist keeps the chase alive.


Downey comes close to stealing the show with a controlled wacko performance, and Ruffalo is back to the solid form that has earned him the reputation as one of the industry's shining lights, but the movie belongs to Gyllenhaal, whose Graysmith is one part eagle scout, one part Sam Spade. Ultimately, his quest, and the movie itself, is about dogged determination and the realization that, sometimes, it's just not enough.

Anyone who is expecting a Se7en-style payoff will be sorely disappointed. While the film does open with some brief graphic violence, the main thrust of the movie (and at a whopping two hours and 38 minutes, it is a long thrust) concerns itself with the quotidian grind of trying to catch a killer. It's a shame to describe the movie as a "mature" work, a term that is so often shorthand for boring. While Zodiac does have a few slow points, it's ultimately far more compelling than any of the dreck Se7en knock-offs that are tagged as "riveting." An excellent effort.
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Title Annotation:MOVIES
Author:McLennan, Neal
Publication:Western Standard
Date:Mar 26, 2007
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