[Screen It]

(2007) (Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo) (R)

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Drama: A cop, a crime beat reporter and an editorial cartoonist separately try to solve the case of the Zodiac serial killer.
It's 1969 and a serial killer is on the loose. Having just murdered several people, the actions of the self-named Zodiac have drawn the obvious attention of San Francisco detective David Toschi (MARK RUFFALO) and his partner William Armstrong (ANTHONY EDWARDS).

It's also piqued the interest of those at the San Francisco Chronicle, particularly since Zodiac has sent the paper a letter warning that if they don't publish it, he'll kill again. Crime beat reporter Paul Avery (ROBERT DOWNEY JR.) immediately starts working the story, but rookie editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (JAKE GYLLENHAAL), who's fond of solving puzzles, also finds himself drawn to figuring out the killer's mysterious cipher sent along with the letter.

With the murders having occurred in various jurisdictions, David and William find their investigation complicated by having to deal with other police officers such as Sgt. Jack Mulanax (ELIAS KOTEAS), all while handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill (PHILIP BAKER HALL) examines Zodiac's penmanship and attorney Melvin Belli (BRIAN COX) interacts with the supposed killer in a televised interview.

While they deal with all of that as well as their captain, Marty Lee (DERMOT MULRONEY), Paul becomes obsessed with discovering Zodiac's real identity, a quest that rubs off on Robert who -- as the months and then years pass -- finds his relationship with new wife Melanie (CHLOE SEVIGNY) becoming ever more strained as his obsession intensifies.

Unable to pin the murders on pedophile Arthur Leigh Allen (JOHN CARROLL LYNCH), David similarly allows his obsession to overwhelm him. With the years passing by and the trail getting cold, the various men trying to solve the crime find their lives unraveling due to their actions.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
When it comes to serial killers and their actions, there are varying degrees of obsession at play. The first, obviously, is that of the mass murderer who, for any number of reasons, feels the need to kill and to do so repeatedly. Then there are the members of the police and other investigative agencies who get so wrapped up in solving the murders (and thus, hopefully, preventing future ones) that they form their own sort of obsession.

The most visible compulsive preoccupation, however, lies within the media when they cover such stories (and others, for that matter). With 24 hours of programming to fill, they become fixated on every detail, no matter how minute or, in many cases, wrong they might be. The result of that are viewers who equally become obsessed, whether that's just in the sensationalistic aspects, a fear for their own or loved ones' lives, or trying to solve the crime themselves.

While it occurred before the advent of round-the-clock cable news coverage, the serial murders of the late 1960s and '70s at the hands of the Zodiac Killer not only transfixed the San Francisco Bay area where they occurred, but also the nation as a whole.

Taking up right where Ted Bundy left off but years before Son of Sam would garner similar headlines in New York City, the never captured killer terrorized the Bay area with an undetermined number of victims, his interaction with the local press, and the fact that he apparently got away with it all.

All of that's captured in "Zodiac," the latest film from David Fincher, a director who knows a thing or two about those who dwell in the underbelly of life ("Fight Club") as well as serial killers ("Se7en"). Despite his knack for tweaking sensationalist material (in those films as well as "The Game" and "Panic Room"), Fincher has created a film that looks, feels, and, if possible, would even smell like a pic from the 1970s. There's the usual production and costume design appropriate for the era, but also the general aura of films made back then.

Of course, that's the decade when some of Hollywood's best product was released, so the bar is set high. And while the film is generally engaging and features a good cast with solid acting, it's way too long (around 160 minutes) and, at times, a bit too sedate, especially for a film of this genre and historical and cultural significance.

And that's not even taking into account the fact that most of it doesn't feature the serial killer as the main character. True, everything that occurs revolves around his actions, but Fincher's film -- stemming from James Vanderbilt's adaptation of Robert Graysmith's book -- is more interested in the ancillary obsessions that formed around the murders. Namely, that's the lead cop on the case, as well as a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle whose interest in the case inexorably turns into full-blown fixation.

Considering that Graysmith himself is that latter persona, it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that the story focuses on him. Notwithstanding the obvious self-promotion (in the film, the character is planning on writing about his work that would then later become the book that would then transform into the movie about the guy wanting to write the book -- wait, I'm getting dizzy), it's not a bad, if clearly not original approach to take in telling such a tale.

After all, what with the preponderance of bogeyman-based horror films, serial killers in the movies have become something of a joke and have certainly lost much of their morbid allure. Thus, Fincher and company instead focus on the cop and the cartoonist (what a great name for a TV cop drama spin-off) played by Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal who deliver solid if not exactly spectacular performances.

In fact, that's a good description of the overall film. It's all competently done, and is near constantly engaging. Yet, it's never completely enthralling. Yes, there are a few tense moments (a scene in a basement where the cartoonist might literally and figuratively be in over his head is particularly notable), but the rest of the film lacks the sizzle it seems to need and that fans of the director and his previous works will be expecting.

Perhaps with a little -- okay, a lot of -- editing and truncating of the far too long running time, the resultant tension and building dramatic momentum might have been more effective. The fact that we never know the killer's identity didn't bother me. In fact, I thought it made the plot more interesting. The filmmakers, however, should have had more fun with that very nebulous quality. Then again, maybe that would have stretched the facts too much from whatever artistic license has already been taken with the truth.

Considering that I knew the story direction before the lights dimmed, I wasn't expecting anything as sensationalistic as some of Fincher's earlier efforts. However, I was expecting a higher degree of enthralling drama. What's present certainly works in a competent way, but the unnecessary length and the lack of spark prevents this from being the "killer" look at psychological obsession -- as well as a true-life story -- that it might have been. Good but not great, "Zodiac" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed February 27, 2007 / Posted March 2, 2007

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