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Review (6/10)
(By Ron Henriques)

Much like the mysterious Zodiac killer, director David Fincher has remained a bit of an enigma. During the last few years, Fincher has been associated with various projects (?Black Dahlia?, ?M:I-3? and ?Redezvous with Rama? come to mind) only to abruptly abandon them after prolonged periods. Nearly five years since his successful Jodie Foster thriller "Panic Room", the filmmaker returns with his first foray into non-fiction, "Zodiac." While not a testosterone driven piece like his die-hard fans of "Seven" and "Fight Club" may have hoped for, the film is an intriguing homage to the cop thrillers of the seventies. Opening in the summer of '69, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, who began his own investigation into the Zodiac killer built his case around a suspect (now dead) and eventually published his findings into a successful book nearly twenty years later. When the editors of the Chronicle receive a letter from a mysterious killer claiming to be responsible for several murders in Vallejo California, they are faced with the task of publishing his three-part cipher or giving him an excuse to seek more victims.

Despite the fact that the Chronicle and several other newspapers publish his letters, the comes to terrorize the Bay Area goes by murdering one half a couple enjoying a romantic day at the lake and a cab driver. A divorced father, with custody of one of his two sons, Graysmith begins his own investigation when he should be sticking to drawing humorous sketches. That's the opinion of lead reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) who see's him as nothing more than an over-enthusiastic boy scout, but humors his friend's theories anyway. Graysmith uses his junior detective skills and knowledge of word puzzles to figure out that Zodiac's infamous code was taken from the Middle Ages and that anyone can decipher it after a trip to the library. The real puzzling aspect of this killer is not his mysterious ciphers but his constantly changing pattern. As the lead investigator of the cabbie shooting, Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) finds his case evolving into a life long obsession. In the attacks involving couples, Zodiac has mysteriously allowed the men to live. Whether attacking his victims by gun or by knife, he has become so obsessed with the women that he forgets to finish off the men. Real panic ensues when the public gets wind of Zodiac's threats to take a high-powered rifle, shoot out the tires of a school bus, and then shoot the children as they come off the bus.

How do you construct a film where the killer is never revealed or confronted? It's a difficult task, but one successful method is to layer the story with fully developed characters and tell it from the viewpoints of the investigators and the victims. David Fincher has never been particularly good at handling drama and although his similarly themed ?Seven? featured career making performances from Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, that film is remembered more than anything for it's visual style. Interestingly, Fincher shows a great deal of restraint within his direction of ?Zodiac.? Gone is the drab cinematography and expensive camera moves only to be replaced by more simple storytelling. In fact, to his credit, the film barely feels like a Fincher movie at all, with the most elaborate visual effect being the time lapse photography construction of San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid.

The investigation into the identity of the Zodiac killer is quite fascinating, but as the search reaches a dead end, so does the momentum of the film. There are quite a number of characters within the story, many portrayed with memorable performances by talented actors such as Anthony Edwards as Toschi's partner, Dermot Mulroney as their superior, Elias Koteas and Donal Logue as small town cops and Brian Cox as famous and flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli who shared a correspondence with the Zodiac. The film focuses on three main players, but unfortunately two of them become peripheral characters. Continuing his winning streak in this new phase of his career, Robert Downey, Jr. plays chain-smoking Paul Avery with all the neuroses of a man driven to drugs and alcohol. As investigator Toschi, Mark Ruffalo brings the dramatic weight of a cop whose seen too much and been on the job too long. With long hair and pork chop sideburns, Ruffalo carries the appearance and weariness of a character from a much darker version of TV's ?The Streets of San Francisco.? One man pursues the Zodiac for fame and fortune, the other for justice, but neither Downey nor Ruffalo survive the experience unscathed and the long term effects are present in both of their impeccable performances. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance on the other hand, remains just as blank and unchanged as the expression on his face.

Gyllenhaal is to be commended, for the controversial and risky films he's become involved with in recent years, but his acting style is cold and boring. There's no way the real Robert Graysmith could be such a one-note and blank individual. If the character were a blank slate that discovers his own identity through his search of that of the Zodiac, that might work, but Gyllenhaal ends up in pretty much the same state (and looking the same age) by the end of the film's 14-year timeline. His exasperating investigation leads to estrangement from girlfriend Melanie (Chloe Sevigny) who by story's end has become his wife, but we're only given a glimpse into his family life. Even before he meets Melanie, Graysmith doesn't appear to be much of a father ? shielding his young son from reports of the Zodiac's threats against children, and then later watching with him a live TV interview between the killer and Melvin Belli. His motive for his search is that he only wants to look the killer in the eyes. Maybe he hopes the Zodiac will reveal himself to be Heath Ledger screaming, ?I wish I could quit you.?

One major factor that works against ?Zodiac? is its running time. At just over two and a half hours, the film is a tad too long and at times seems longer. If there was a major payoff at the outcome it might all be worth it, but history has revealed they never really caught their man. The film's third hour focuses more on Gyllenhaal's investigation and by then what could have been a tighter cat and mouse thriller gets silly and mundane when he runs around trying to dig up evidence against factory worker John Carroll Lynch or mild-mannered Charles Fleischer (the voice of Roger Rabbit). Fincher doesn't fail in providing truly creepy and atmospheric thrills, especially Zodiac's reconstructed attacks which play matter-of-factly rather than exploitive. One surprise is that the film was shot digitally and this process must have aided in providing the visual f/x recreation of 1970's San Francisco. The f/x don't draw attention to themselves and the photography looks like the 70's exist today rather than dated or grainy.


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