In the late Sixties, the San Francisco Chronicle starts receiving letters from a serial killer calling himself Zodiac. As the years pass, the killings become an obsession for the reporter covering it, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr), and the cops trying to figure it out, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). As the years pass and the killer escapes identification, everybody resigns to never catching him apart from cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Nowadays, television is awash with police procedurals and there seems to be a different CSI for every night of the week. In order to get a good idea of what to expect from Zodiac, just imagine an ultra long, better paced and more intelligent cousin to these shows.

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However, unlike most contemporary cop series, this is not an easy watch where hip officers piece clues together with cool forensic tools and eventually unveil the ‘bad guy’ of the piece (who happens to be this week’s guest star). Zodiac requires patience and makes the viewer work throughout its two-and-a-half hour running time by drip feeding information just as you would expect in a real life situation. Even Gil Grissom would be puzzled.

As it’s based heavily on Graysmith’s 1986 book True Crime, it’s unsurprising that the viewpoint is presented through his eyes and – although the killer was never caught – leaves it fairly conclusive as to who he thinks it was. In the process, director David Fincher stays very close to the source material and avoids Hollywood practices left, right and centre in order to give proceedings that extra splash of reality. Those expecting a Scooby Doo-like ending should probably think again.

In terms of the narrative, normal convention is also shattered, as the story continually hops along the timeline from one significant event to another. While necessary for authenticity, moving years at a time ultimately proves frustrating as the changes in the characters distance us slightly, just as we are becoming interested and forming alliances. More long-distance bounds than well-crafted arcs, Avery goes from hippy journalist to paranoid alcoholic, Toschi changes from determined cop to disillusioned burnout and Graysmith transforms from goofy cartoonist to fanatical truth-seeker.

While Avery’s chic writer is constantly on the verge of gaining our attention and Toschi’s frustrated agent occasionally grips us, neither are given sufficient screen development as the plot hogs the foreground. It’s not until later on, when we spend a continued spell with Graysmith, that we have someone to genuinely invest in as his compulsive desire to find the truth and family-ruining obsession proves moderately gripping. As for the finale, where the quirky cartoon-scribe comes head to head with the man he believes to be the Zodiac, other Hollywood directors should take note that tension doesn’t always need to equal guns and chases.

As far as the cast go, Gyllenhaal is completely at home as the geeky loner desperate to solve the riddle, Ruffalo’s temperamental detective has a snappy charm to him and Downey Jr can do the charismatic scoundrel with substance abuse problems until the cows come home (or until he is wearing a big read and yellow suit made of iron). In terms of Fincher, this may be his most un-Fincher-like movie to date given that, apart from one or two ideas (nifty floating letters/numbers behind the characters, a building getting built in Blade-style fast forward to represent the passage of time) this is the most garden variety picture he has helmed yet.

In summation, despite a realistic approach, impressive acting and material that reflects the director’s passion for the subject, Zodiac is one mystery that doesn’t work itself out.

Reviewed on: 27 Dec 2008
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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:

Jennie Kermode ****1/2
Chris ***
Martin Gray ***

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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