A gripping true tale of attrition and obsession, David Fincher’s “Zodiac” completely justifies the 155 minutes it takes Fincher to tell it. It could even have been longer. Indeed, you’re likely to stick around for all of the closing credits, which wrap up the final details of the story.
It begins in the Bay Area in 1969, with “Easy to Be Hard” setting the chilly, exact tone on the soundtrack. An attention-starved killer is on the loose, attacking unsuspecting couples at night on lovers’ lane and (even more horrifically) in daylight during a picnic.
Soon he’s sending threatening letters to the city’s daily newspapers, where a veteran reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and a young editorial cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), become fascinated with the case. At the same time, homicide inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), get involved.
A murder pattern appears to emerge, evidence seems to point to a suspect, but then the pattern is shattered and the hot lead turns cold. As several years pass, and the 1970s merge into the 1980s and later, the Zodiac killer strikes again, but most of the men who were hot on his trail have gone on to other things.
That’s when Fincher, the gifted director of “Se7en” and “Fight Club,” and his screenwriter, James Vanderbilt (“Darkness Falls”), get really interested. What happens when what seemed like a sure thing leads to frustration and burn-out? Who sticks around and looks for clues, years after the victims have been buried?
Only Graysmith, a divorced single father, can’t let go of his desire to find and trap the murderer. The movie, which at first plays like an ensemble piece, gradually reveals itself as a tightly focused study of this man, played without an ounce of ego by Gyllenhaal.
“I need to know who he is,” he tries to explain in the film’s most painful, revelatory moment.
Right from the beginning, Gyllenhaal immerses himself in the character, who initially suggests a telepathic connection to the killer. Avery is amused by the obsession (this is one of Downey’s more playful performances), and Graysmith’s new girlfriend (Chloe Sevigny) thinks it’s kind of cute when their first date turns into an all-nighter detective adventure.
But Avery quits his job to live as a stoner, Armstrong takes himself off the case, and the girlfriend becomes a neglected wife and mother. Things turn ugly as Graysmith digs up old files, tracks down witnesses and harasses the exasperated Toschi at his home.
In the hands of lesser filmmakers, “Zodiac” could have been a one-note, judgmental thriller about a man who loses his sense of perspective. Fincher never lets that happen, partly because of his sharp grasp of the changing California culture (especially the music and the sideburns), his wicked sense of gallows humor and his canny use of San Francisco’s history as a movie location (“Dirty Harry,” an early version of the Zodiac story, gets its due).
But mostly it’s because of the remarkably committed performances he draws from everyone, especially Gyllenhaal.