(director: David Fincher; screenwriters: James Vanderbilt/based on the books “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked” by Robert Graysmith; cinematographer: Harris Savides; editor: Angus Wall; music: David Shire; cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector Dave Toschi), Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery), Anthony Edwards (Inspector Bill Armstrong), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), Elias Koteas (Sgt. Jack Mulanax), Chloë Sevigny (Melanie), John Carroll Lynch (Arthur Leigh Allen), Philip Baker Hall (Sherwood Morrill), Dermot Mulroney (Captain Marty Lee), Donal Logue (Ken Narlow), Patrick Scott Lewis (Bryan Hartnell, survivor of a knife attack); Runtime: 158; MPAA Rating: R; producers: James Vanderbilt/Mike Medavoy/Arnold W. Messer/Bradley J. Fischer/Cean Chaffin; Paramount Pictures; 2007)

“Revisits the infamous serial killer known as the Zodiac.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

David Fincher (“Seven”/”Fight Club”/”Panic Room”) revisits the infamous serial killer known as the Zodiac, who in the 1960s and possibly the ’70s left a number of victims in Northern California with his brutal random attacks (a possible 13 but a certain 7, with one young male college student living through a vicious knife attack as the only witness to get a slight look at the masked killer). In addition he put an awful fright in the San Francisco Bay Area by calling attention to himself through threatening letters that were printed in the local newspapers. The case was never solved. There’s no resolution here but the film’s payoff comes through its reportedly accurate presentation of supposedly just the facts, as it points to a prime suspect in the creepy sex offender named Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) who died in 1992 of a heart attack and who was reluctantly cleared in 1971 by the police’s own handwriting expert (Philip Baker Hall) to the chagrin of the lead investigators.

It’s based on the two best selling books, “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked,” by Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was at the time an editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s adapted by James Vanderbilt, who keeps it more about Graysmith and his obsession with tracking down the killer than on the serial killer. It seemed overlong at 158 minutes, though Fincher does keep it zipping along as it veers from a character study of the goofy Boy Scout-like cartoonist to an unemotional police procedural thriller to showing the work habits of the newspaper people following the story. The film, in style, is most like Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” Harry Sevides shot it on digital HD, giving it a stunningly authentic look.

The killer sent his first letter and encrypted message to the San Francisco Chronicle on Aug. 1, 1969, after the Solano county shooting homicide of a young couple parked in a lover’s lane. The coded ciphers caught Graysmith’s fancy and he immediately became obsessed with the case even though it didn’t involve his duties at the paper. He was able to decipher that the killer didn’t divulge his name as promised but did reveal its manhunting reference to the 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game–meaning the killer got his kicks from hunting down human victims. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) was the flamboyant, boozy, ascot garbed star Chronicle crime reporter assigned to report the story, but he got carried away with showboating and trying to solve it on his own leading to his downfall. The lead detectives on the case were the soft-spoken but hard-nosed Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his similar natured partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), two dedicated bloodhounds who ran into bureaucratic problems almost immediately: information was unshared, warrants had to be issued in the various communities of the murders and vast procedural inconsistencies between jurisdictions caused damaging delays to their investigation. These malfunctions put a serious crimp on the investigation and it goes nowhere.

The long investigation has a toll on cop family life. This causes Armstrong to beg off the case and when some years pass without a murder or note from the Zodiac, the public loses interest and only Toschi is left on the case. Toschi was supposedly the inspiration for the characters played by Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” and Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry.”

When the case grows cold, Graysmith swings into action and by his lonesome tracks down trails the police investigators failed to and in his obsessive mode finds enough circumstantial evidence to pin it on the primary suspect the police were forced to give up on in 1971. Though nothing happens with this new gathering of evidence primarily because the cartoonist is not a lawman and no one is willing to openly stick their neck out for him.

Supporting cast members of note are Brian Cox, who does a bang-up job aping media star attorney Melvin Belli; and Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney and Donal Logue as beleaguered investigating officers who are handcuffed in their investigation by procedures.

The film swims in dark water, shunning psychological explanations to keep it all as nuts-and-bolts police work. Though lacking in dramatic effect it provides us with some kind of historical reference point at a time when serial killers first appeared on the American scene as rare birds to the current times when serial killers are just one more criminal element to contend with in our daily life. The somewhat materialist-minded cartoonist hero of the story shows how impotent his compulsive efforts turned out to be, as the most notorious case of its time ends in a whimper that reflects a cynic’s futile world-weary view of the cruel world (which is probably Fincher’s, making this his most personal film).