April 13, 2010
 

Tracking A Reel Life Killer

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Zodiac

By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

In the pictures "Se7en," "Fight Club," "Panic Room," and the Alien outing referenced in "The Host" review, David Fincher has carved out a reputation for terror/suspense that can find a home in science fantasy, science-fiction or hard noir. Fincher is a dark, dark director, and even one of his commercials for Nike begins with a long, thick black snake slithering up from the water and across a beach. But in "Zodiac," Fincher has brilliantly expanded his talents while (mostly) curbing his appetites for shock, to create a mesmerizing true-crime epic.

The Zodiac serial killer haunted the San Francisco area throughout the 1970s, slaying individuals and couples, writing plaintive pleas for publicity and exposure to The Chronicle newspaper, and inspiring a string of movies including "Dirty Harry," with a young Clint Eastwood pursuing a crazy named Scorpio. Zodiac's history is meticulously detailed in a book by former Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who did the heaviest lifting in investigating and eventually identifying the probable killer, aided by the tireless work of two dedicated SFPD detectives and a talented train wreck of a Chronicle reporter.

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Fincher's movie is an intricate procedural and it's on a par with "Chinatown" and "LA Confidential," surely the two finest neo-noirs of the 20th century. The picture is dense with absorbing trails, dead ends, tantalizing and mysterious relatives, acquaintances and institutional authorities touched by the awful crimes. (It's the kind of intelligent storytelling that informs two other current movies, "Breach" and "The Good Shepherd.") The soundtrack is alive with stoner tracks by Vanilla Fudge, Donovan, and a variety of West Coast 70s rockers. Fincher shoots in widest CinemaScope proportions and crams mountains of data into short, staccato scenes that build a momentum and sense of dread that one finds only in the best of fiction masters like James Ellroy, Don Westlake, and the blackest of the century's pulp writers, Cornell Woolrich.

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"Zodiac" is tightly edited to within an inch of its life, and there are occasional montages of elements that move the viewer briskly along through nearly a quarter century of investigation. This is a tour-de-force, and it requires (and earns) your undivided attention for two and a half hours. There are only a few seconds of explicit slayings you may want to avert your eyes from.

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The three leads--cartoonist Jake Gyllenhaal, detective Mark Ruffalo, newshound Robert Downey, Jr--form the kind of knit, intense ensemble that Brian de Palma was never able to achieve in "The Black Dahlia." They're supported by first-rate talents like Anthony Edwards,Elias Koteus, Chloe Sevigny, Philip Baker Hall, and, as the Zodiac killer, a spooky, shape-shifting John Carroll Lynch who's all the better for being less than a household name. When "Zodiac" ends with brief real-life summaries up on screen on what has happened to the various principals portrayed in the picture, you may feel ready for a shower--or possibly an immediate second viewing. "Zodiac" is that compelling, an adult movie for unafraid adults.

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