- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

Everyone who endured the Washington area’s infamous sniper attacks five years ago knows how a serial killer’s presence can paralyze a city, how the randomness of killings leads to a feverish panic that you’re next, how it’s impossible to stop watching as the media rations out details about who might be doing this and why.

Healthy minds will forever be baffled by what makes a serial murderer and what makes someone devote their life to capturing him, although this is only part of the reason why director David Fincher’s “Zodiac” is appealing.

Yes, it’s the story of a psychopath. But it’s also about the police-media tug-of-war, the lives that were changed or wrecked because of this man, the time spent poring over every fact and file that never resulted in a conviction and, perhaps most rivetingly, the notion that an audience member could presumably crack open this deadlocked case with some key buried deep within.

Based on the meticulously researched book by Robert Graysmith (played with nicely restrained enthusiasm by Jake Gyllenhaal), the film revisits the arbitrary killing spree that the Zodiac Killer committed in the late ‘60s and early ‘ 70s. He claimed victims’ lives in a variety of ways, from stabbing youngsters on lovers’ lane to shooting a cabbie point blank, and never established an obvious pattern.

He then publicized his own exploits by sending chilling letters and encrypted clues about his identity to local newspapers, sometimes taking credit for murders he may not have committed.

While the San Francisco Police Department’s homicide inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) tried to piece together information spread over the several counties where the murders took place, the San Francisco Chronicle’s ace crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), aimed to beat them to the punch. The relationship between the two organizations swung between symbiotic and mutually self-defeating.

As the Zodiac’s taunts grew bolder (he even threatened to pick off children on a school bus), pressure to capture the bloodthirsty criminal mounted, yet out of thousands of leads, police never landed anything concrete enough to convict.

Mr. Graysmith, an editorial cartoonist at the Chronicle, had watched over Mr. Avery’s shoulder as the Zodiac’s letters poured in and grew consumed with solving the case himself. He began investigating “to write a book,” and published the first of two accounts in 1986 with “Zodiac,” which has sold more than 400 million copies worldwide.

Production notes describe the film, which relied almost entirely on Mr. Graysmith’s books and primary sources, as painstakingly accurate. To this end, the film is an overindulgent 21/2 hours — even longer than the director’s other fine two-plus-hour works, including the morose thriller “Se7en” and violent social study “Fight Club.” In this case, all that footage may succeed in conveying the huge lags of time that elapsed between killings and facts found, but with gripping events buried between long, droning segments, the pacing suffers and so does the audience.

Where viewers win is in the film’s realism. Despite the fact that dozens of larger-than-life roles (such as Dirty Harry) were supposedly based on Mr. Toschi, this movie’s characters are sturdily constructed and thoroughly human. Aesthetically, the muted color palette and period props cast a nice nostalgic hue over the experience.

It’s no “Se7en” or “Fight Club” (it’s actually a bit less graphic), but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the hysteria created by a real-life cutthroat killer.

**1/2

TITLE: “Zodiac”

RATING: R (some graphic violence and language)

CREDITS: Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith.

RUNNING TIME: 158 minutes

WEB SITE: www.zodiacmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS


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