February 22, 2007

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Zodiac (R)
Cops, a newspaper reporter and a cartoonist become obsessed with the late 1960s/early 1970s murders associated with a publicity-seeking serial killer in Zodiac, a long but tight and suspenseful film about the real-life murders.

Though almost three hours, the movie never drags. It skillfully manages to give us a sense of the passage of time ó the movieís action begins in 1969 and ends in the 1990s ó without tiring us out.

Zodiac begins with the gruesome shooting deaths of a young couple hanging out at a loversí lane in northern California. A few months later, three San Francisco-area newspapers receive letters threatening murder if the papers donít run a puzzle. The papers, out of civic duty and competitiveness, run the puzzle (which is quickly solved by an academic and his wife). Then, another young couple is killed, this time stabbed at a lake, and another letter comes from what appears to be the same person, this time signing off as Zodiac. This letter promises even more killing. Though it doesnít happen exactly as threatened, more killing occurs ó a taxi-driver is stabbed and the murderer (well, maybe the murderer) leaves behind a finger print. The case becomes an obsession for law-enforcement types, especially San Francisco homicide detectives Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). Sleuthing in a time before DNA tests and computers, these cops have a hard time finding evidence they know comes from the killer and they arenít kept in the best of contact with the police officers in the other jurisdictions in which earlier murders occurred.

Meanwhile, reporters are hot on the trail of this sensationalistic murderer as well, the most aggressive of whom is Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). Avery is a police reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the newspapers that receives Zodiac letters. A paranoid drunk, Avery finds an audience for his suppositions about the Zodiac in Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the case as soon as he sees the killerís first cryptogram. He checks code books out of the library and tries to track the killerís methods, taking up where Avery leaves off when the reporterís drunkenness and generally unpleasant behavior get him drummed out of the paper.

As time goes by, the ďfactsĒ of the Zodiac case become ever muddier. He sends letters confessing to murders that he might not have committed. Investigations lead different detectives in different police departments to have strong suspects but nobody whom hard evidence could prove is Zodiac. Armstrong gets himself transferred to a less stressful beat and Toschi begins to sense his downfall in the never-ending case.

As official investigators end, Graysmith becomes even more obsessed. He has his own handwriting analysis done, tracks down witnesses and even finds himself facing a man he momentarily believes to be the Zodiac. He eventually leaves the paper and sets his sights on writing a book that he hopes will uncover the true killer. The all-consuming nature of this hunt leaves him looking physically wrecked and begins to wear on the relationship with his wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny). And this is before the late-night strange phone calls start where Graysmith hears nothing but heavy breathing.

This all sounds like fairly standard cops-and-killers-movie stuff but the story actually unfolds in a sprawling, cast-of-dozens way that makes it seem bigger and more complex than an episode of CSI or some Samuel L. Jackson movie about men committing crimes in the shadows. In fact, because of the time period (1970s) the movie canít be just another high-tech modern crime movie ó itís a detectivesí puzzle in a sort of old-fashioned way that the TV police procedurals arenít anymore. The story is interested in the detective-novel aspects of the murder ó motivation, the reports of a few surviving victims of attacks, the possibility that one of the victims might have not been random but might have known the Zodiac ó more even than the fingerprint evidence (inconclusive, of course) it does have. The fact that a nonprofessional is eventually the only person actively investigating the case highlights the one-guy-digging-through-documents method of this kind of crime-solving. Itís nerdy and usually not dangerous and yet the movie makes it absolutely riveting. Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo are especially good at giving us a sense of how aggravating the many loose ends of this case are while still making their desire to keep digging seem believable.

The movie also does a good job of building and deflating obsession ó the Zodiacís obsessions, the copsí obsessions with him, the reporterís obsession with the story and later the lone sleuth, Graysmith, turning into something of a nut himself as his obsession takes him to the edge of ruin. There is a punch-at-the-wall frustration that sticks to everybody who wanders into the Zodiac case. For those not familiar with the case ó spoiler alert ó the murders are never really solved, and yet the story manages to leave us with this knowledge without leaving us hanging. We get the frustration, the confusion and the tangled obsession of the crimes as well as a surprisingly satisfying non-satisfaction ending. B+

Rated R for some killings, strong language, drug material and brief sexual images. Directed by David Fincher and written by James Vanderbilt from a book by Robert Graysmith, Zodiac is two hours and 45 minutes long and will be distributed in wide release by Warner Brothers International on March 2