Still on the loose

By Aaron Zundel

“Zodiac”Paramount PicturesDirected by David FincherWritten by James Vanderbilt; based on the book by Robert GraysmithStarring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Dermot Mulroney and Donal Logue Rated R/160 minutesOpens March 2, 2007Three out of four stars

With great cinematic thrillers like “Se7en” and “The Game” on his rsum, director David Fincher can safely be considered a master of the genre. Given his history with such material, it wasn’t unexpected when Fincher announced he was working on “Zodiac,” a film based on the actual Zodiac killer who terrorized California in the late ’60s and early ’70s. What was unexpected was when the movie turned out not to be a thriller at all, but a quirky, character-driven dramedy with a few thrilling moments thrown in for good measure.

Not that I thought Fincher incapable of such a hybrid. Anyone who’s seen “Fight Club” will agree that Fincher can produce comedy and quirk like Monet produced water lilies. But the quirk in “Zodiac” is in a totally different, drier vein than the quirk in “Fight Club,” and, like I said before, certainly surprising given the subject matter.

With so much historical material to draw on, Fincher could have easily justified going the slasher route, filling the screen with guts, gore and buckets o’ blood. Instead, he chose to make a film that most closely resembles the campy crime films of the 1970s, complete with funky guitar riffs and muted colors.

Orthodoxy aside, I suppose it doesn’t really matter that Fincher defied convention when he decided to direct “Zodiac,” because the end product is nothing less than stellar.

Is it dark? Yes. Long? Sure. But stellar, nonetheless.

Similar to previous Fincher films, such as “Fight Club” and “The Game,” characters become the real focus of “Zodiac.” This is especially true of Jake Gyllenhaal, whose portrayal of San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith is so softly eccentric and vulnerable that it finally convinced me Gyllenhaal’s career is more than just another Hollywood fad.

A cartoonist with a knack for puzzles, Graysmith becomes interested in the Zodiac case after the serial killer sends a letter to his newspaper, admitting to several recent murders and promising to kill more unless an enclosed cipher is printed on the next edition’s front page.

Also covering the Zodiac case is substance-abusing crime reporter Paul Avery (played by Robert Downey Jr.), whose cynical absurdity is so charming (yes, I said charming) that Downey Jr. is bound to win some sort of award for his efforts — though one has to wonder how much “acting” Downy Jr. actually had to do to play a drunk. Together, the two actors drum up some of the best banter and screen chemistry seen in a while. Don’t believe me? Two words: “Aqua Velva.”

As methodically paced as the Zodiac’s crimes themselves, the film effortlessly glides between segments of dry, idiosyncratic humor, character drama and moody tension. Mark Ruffalo’s performance of semi-famous San Francisco police detective Dave Tisch — the officer who handled the Zodiac case — is especially nuanced.

At almost three hours long, “Zodiac” bogs down transitioning into the second hour, but the quagmire doesn’t last, and the film speeds up again near the end to finish satisfactorily. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the real Zodiac murders knows that the killer was never caught, so people expecting any sort of resolution are going to walk out of the theater feeling cheated and disappointed. Despite the title, the film concerns itself less with the Zodiac as a character (though there’s still plenty of that) and more with the impact his crimes have on the characters and the community. Graysmith, Avery and Tisch act more as commentaries on obsession and frustration than they do as traditional protagonists.

Perhaps “Zodiac’s” greatest success is the way Fincher captures and explores the dichotomy of cultural paranoia and fascination that seems to grip society when a serial killer is on the loose. Even with its open ending, however, “Zodiac” is worth watching for anyone who enjoys a good story, some tense moments and a trailer home full of squirrels.