This elegant film seems destined to be misunderstood. If you're a fan of tense crime thrillers full of scares and mystery, then it may not be for you - but it's certainly about you.

Though he can be many things to many people, David Fincher's real genius is in using his films to talk about the themes dear to his heart, whatever their ostensible subjects. On the surface, Zodiac is about the eponymous serial killer who terrorised a swathe of Californian society in the Summer of Love and for some years afterwards. In reality, it's a film about obsession and society's response to terrorism. Like Se7en, Fight Club and Panic Room, it focuses on the way that ordinary people react to unassailable causes of stress in a manner which can leave them looking just as unhinged as their inspiration. Like the ciphers which the publicity-conscious killer sends to the press, Zodiac is a puzzle in several parts the key to which is an understanding of character.

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The film opens with a brutal attack on a young couple parked by a lake. Edgy music and camera angles which partially obscure the view build up a sense of tension which recurs at intervals as the story progresses, neatly balanced against the elation which various cops and journalists feel each time they think they've got a break - a pattern of heightened emotion which goes some way toward explaining their addiction. One after another, we see them slide into obsession, their personal lives falling apart as they grow determined to solve the mystery with which the killer has presented them. Why should this one case have had so much impact? As one of the cops points out, there were literally hundreds of other murders in the region whilst the Zodiac was at large. But then, any one of us is more likely to die in a road accident than in a terrorist incident, and we know which grab the headlines. Whatever his identity, Zodiac knew how to manipulate the media, creating a public sensation whose legacy still lingers today. In his numerous letters he noted, amongst other things, that he was waiting for a good film to be made about him. This one doesn't flatter him. Somehow, Fincher has managed to keep the perspective which others lost, though his portrait of the investigation is meticulously crafted, rich in detail.

Despite its disturbing subject matter, Zodiac is also an excellent piece of entertainment. It's full of humorous asides and movie in-jokes which the killer himself, with a fondness for film, might well have appreciated. Clever camerawork borrows shots from the likes of Dirty Harry (which, we are reminded, was a hit at the time) and Peeping Tom. Fincher knows the format of this kind of thing well, and uses cliches to manipulate our expectations. Mark Ruffalo's quirky performance as Inspector Toschi makes delightful reference to Columbo, even down to the trenchcoat and the habit of stealing other people's food. Jake Gyllenhaal makes a charming Eagle Scout hero, also bringing a core of humanity to the story, worried as he (initially) is for the safety of his own kids. Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast as the fascinated crime writer slipping into alcoholism, whilst the redoubtable Brian Cox brings dangerous authority to the part of handwriting expert Melvin Belli. By contrast, the role of the Zodiac himself is studiously downplayed, split between at least three different actors, keeping him not only mysterious but also emotionally absent, a deliberate void at the centre of an investigation struggling under its own weight.

It's a long time since anyone has brought us a crime story quite like this, and it's wonderful to see Fincher back on form. This isn't your run of the mill CSI-style thriller and it won't offer you the same simple satisfaction, but it's a fine piece of drama with some smart things to say about the world we live in.

Reviewed on: 14 May 2007
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Zodiac packshot
A cop, a reporter and a cartoonist become obsessed with a serial killer in 1970s San Francisco.
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Read more Zodiac reviews:

Chris ***
Martin Gray ***
Stephen Carty ***

Director: David Fincher

Writer: James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Richmond Arquette, Bob Stephenson, John Lacy, Chloë Sevigny, Ed Setrakian

Year: 2007

Runtime: 158 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: USA

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Devil's Knot
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