David Fincher returns with Zodiac thriller

Or Dirty Harry.

Or The Silence of the Lambs.

Less than a year since the direct-to-DVD release of The Zodiac, a fictionalized retelling of the infamous murders, comes Zodiac, a well-financed version from Warner Bros.,The yardstick for Zodiac, an expansive and captivating look at a real-life American horror story, is clearly All the President’s Men.

Or Dirty Harry.

Or The Silence of the Lambs.

Less than a year since the direct-to-DVD release of The Zodiac, a fictionalized retelling of the infamous murders, comes Zodiac, a well-financed version from Warner Bros. and Paramount. Coming in at 157 minutes, Zodiac inevitably contains the occasional superfluous scene and maintains an utterly bizarre and occasionally confusing narrative.

Still, Zodiac is irrefutably director David Fincher’s best and most mature film since Seven-dubious adulation considering his previous offerings include the underwhelming Panic Room and highly overrated Fight Club.

Zodiac is the “based on true facts” retelling of the still-unidentified Zodiac killer, a serial murderer who, beginning in the late 1960s, eluded police capture and taunted the San Francisco Bay Area with derisively snide letters that were sent to and published by the San Francisco Chronicle.

The focus of the film however, centers around Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Chronicle’s ace reporter, inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), the San Francisco detective assigned to the Zodiac case, and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and, later, the author of the book Zodiac.

As the clues surrounding the identity of the mysterious killer begin to unravel and reveal themselves, Graysmith, Avery and Toschi’s interest in the case steadily develops into obsession, ruining both their careers and personal lives.

Fincher has taken a far more disciplined directorial approach than he has with previous efforts. Those who come expecting the kitschy blandness of Fight Club will be severely disappointed, save for one stylized but effective stop-frame transition, which displays the construction of the Transamerica Building in its entirety. Fincher’s energy is spent primarily on creating compelling atmosphere, not self-parodying characters.

His portrayal of a region thrown into entropy by the Zodiac’s public threats and the media’s sensationalism surrounding the Zodiac murders is simultaneously humorous and poignant.

The depiction of 1970s police and journalistic work breathes fresh air into a genre that currently takes its cues from the “CSI” paradigm that presently floods both film and television. A strong scent of procedural realism pervades Inspector Toschi’s investigation of the Zodiac, a quality rarely found in modern crime-dramas.

Although the acting is solid down the line, Downey is especially brilliant as the scene stealing Avery. He evokes a haughty veneer that clashes perfectly with Gyllenhaal’s turn as the diffident yet intrepid Graysmith.

On a peculiar note, in a movie that spans several decades, Gyllenhaal’s character does not exhibit any physical signs of aging, save for one or two extra facial hairs. While other characters grow beards, moustaches, and begin to wrinkle, Gyllenhaal remains the perfect picture of adolescence (which is especially disconcerting when one considers that his character is a father of four).

While masterful in fragments, Zodiac is slightly too ambitious in scope. The film weaves in and out of newsrooms, police stations and macabre locales in an attempt to breed three relatively incongruent genres into one mammoth and fluid hybrid. While Zodiac is by no means stagnant, sometimes it feels like channel surfing.

An annoying narrative flaw within Zodiac, possibly due to the breadth of the material, pertains to the constant date labeling that, in the films early parts, flashes across the screen after practically every scene. (i.e. “two months later,” “three years later,” “2 1/2 hours later,” etc.) As a result, scenes begin to encompass a slightly anachronistic feel, enhanced by the carousel of locations that appear throughout the film.

On a technological note, the Thomson Viper, the camera employed by Fincher for the filming of Zodiac, is responsible for reaching a momentous cinematic milestone. While many directors have initiated a transition toward digital filmmaking, Zodiac is the first film to be shot entirely on a hard drive.

In what is perhaps the film’s best scene, Avery antagonistically questions Graysmith on whether or not excessive interest in the Zodiac is a good thing.

It is. So far, Zodiac is 2007’s best picture.