Deep into the jigsaw puzzle journey of "Zodiac," the camera swoops in on San Francisco's fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge.
It's a simple transition move, taking us from one scene to another -- or at least it would be if not for the fact that David Fincher is directing. In Fincher's hands, that 10-second, overhead gull's-eye shot of the bridge creates a sense of vertigo and unease, with just with an undercurrent of exhilaration.
Yes, this is deadly, complicated business. But for the audience, it's dark fun as well, trying piece it all together.
We're watching an artist at work.
Compared to such blood-spattered modern noir classics as "Se7en" and "Fight Club, Fincher's take on one of the most notorious serial killers in American history is a fairly straightforward procedural -- but every once in a while, like a jazz musician ad-libbing, he delights in reminding us of his immense talent.
It's in the details. The way Fincher lights the musty tavern where journalists gather minutes after deadline. The low and off-center placement of the camera as a motorcycle cop discovers the site of an attempted double homicide. The short bursts of humor, as when a famous lawyer takes a pause from his Christmas season monologue about a serial killer, hoists a delicate drink and says to a couple of cops: "Toddy?" The fact that Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" becomes the unofficial theme song for the film, and Donovan's daughter Ione Skye has a memorable cameo as a young mother who finds herself in a car with the Zodiac, wondering how she'll survive.
Adapted by James Vanderbilt from two of the most popular books about a case that has consumed crime buffs for decades, "Zodiac" is a deliberately paced thriller that focuses more on the journalists and cops investigating the crimes than on the methodology and madness of the Zodiac himself. Think "Silence of the Lambs" if we spent a whole lot more time with the Scott Glenn character. (And that's not a bad thing, because Lord knows we've had enough murder mysteries that dwell on the insane-genius killer, haven't we?)
Like London's Jack the Ripper, northern California's Zodiac killer exists in a grisly netherworld between real-life killer and the stuff of bloody legend. As the years go by, the monstrous killer who called himself "Zodiac" has meshed with the Zodiac of rumor and folklore to become a near-mythical figure, like a hippies-era Dracula.
In Fincher's sprawling, 165-minute opus, we're eventually led to believe that one of the main suspects is indeed the killer, even though in real life nobody has ever been convicted of the crimes, and there are myriad theories about the Zodiac's identity and how many victims he can legitimately claim. (The always-entertaining and semi-reliable Wikipedia.org lists no fewer than a dozen possible suspects, including none other than Ted "The Unabomber" Kaczynski.) Much of what we see in Zodiac, including the names of the cops and reporters and victims, as well as the excruciatingly exact details of some of the murders, stays as true to the facts as an old-school documentary. In other instances, we're watching a movie -- a fictional movie.
In the 1960s, letters arrive at the editorial offices of three Bay Area newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle. Written in a fairly sophisticated code, the letters claim responsibility for the shootings of two couples. There's the threat of more carnage.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Robert Graysmith, a strait-laced former Eagle Scout working as an editorial cartoonist for the paper. As an amateur sleuth and puzzle hobbyist, Graysmith takes a keen interest in the case -- much to the amusement (and then annoyance) of Robert Downey Jr.'s Paul Avery, the reporter assigned to the case. In a bit of casting so perfect it's almost distracting, Downey's Avery is a brilliant, rebellious, self-destructive manic-depressive drug addict/alcoholic who is his own worst enemy. (One could say Mr. Downey has spent much of the last, oh, 20 years researching the part.) Typecasting aside, Downey is amazing. Rarely has an actor been so comfortable playing someone who makes everyone around him extremely uncomfortable.
Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are equally strong as Dave Tosci and Bill Armstrong, the homicide cops investigating the Zodiac murders. Sometimes they need the help of Avery and Graysmith -- after all, the journalists are the ones getting the letters from Zodiac--and sometimes they want to strangle them for getting in the way.
Because the crimes take place in multiple jurisdictions, a dizzying array of detectives and beat cops and police chiefs are brought in on various elements of the case. In one hilarious sequence, Edwards becomes increasingly frustrated as he attempts to obtain key information and is repeatedly told by colleagues in smaller cities that they don't even have one of those new-fangled "facsimile" machines he keeps mentioning. How about they drop the evidence in the U.S. Mail?
Publicity-seeking nutballs step forward, claiming to be Zodiac. At the killer's request, a local TV talk show host has famed attorney Melvin Belli (the great Brian Cox) on his show, and they take calls supposedly from the Zodiac himself. Investigators start to doubt the validity of some letters. They also wonder if the Zodiac is taking "credit" for murders he didn't commit.
The case goes cold. Sometimes months or even years go by without a single letter from the Zodiac. Most of the cops and reporters originally on the case are reassigned or burn out or just give up.
Except the cartoonist. Graysmith becomes obsessed with the Zodiac, losing his job and his family and his perspective in the process as he works on a book about the case. He just wants that one moment, when he can go eye-to-eye with the killer and make him understand that at least one person in the world doesn't have any doubt about the Zodiac's identity.
Like Spike Lee's underrated "Summer of Sam," Fincher's "Zodiac" is an interpretation of a notorious crime spree that recognizes the cold facts but also makes many leaps of faith. It works as a police procedural, a period piece and a character study.
And it leaves you hoping that whoever the Zodiac was, he's long dead.