Obsession craves resolution the way a hunter craves his prey. But what happens to the obsessed when there is no resolution? David Fincher's fascinating, uncompromising "Zodiac" is about four men who became obsessed with capturing the legendary Bay Area serial killer known as the Zodiac. The case started in 1968 when two teenagers out on a date were shot in their car in Vallejo, Calif. The girl was killed; the boy survived. The killer, who taunted his pursuers with letters to local newspapers written in code, struck again on the Fourth of July, 1969, when he stabbed a couple picnicking by a lake in Napa County. His third strike came in San Francisco, where he shot a cabdriver in the back of the head and narrowly escaped capture.
Anyone who followed the story or who read Robert Graysmith's two best-selling books about the Zodiac knows that almost four decades later, the case has not been solved. That fact alone places Fincher's movie outside convention. Hollywood movies crave resolution no less than homicide detectives do, but Fincher, who played by the rules of the genre in his pitch-black serial-killer hit "Se7en," is after different game here. His movie, based on the two books by Graysmith (he's the main character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal), has its theory about who the killer was, but it's not ultimately about who done it, or why. Its real theme is how uncertainty—not finding an answer—can bend someone's life out of shape. Fincher, who did his own detective work in the course of making the movie and even uncovered new clues, is no less consumed with the minutiae of the case than his protagonists. The result is a movie about obsession made with an obsessive attention to detail.
"Zodiac" is meticulously crafted—Harris Savides's state-of-the-art digital cinematography has a richness indistinguishable from film—and it runs almost two hours and 40 minutes. Still, the movie holds you in its grip from start to finish. Fincher boldly (and some may think perversely) withholds the emotional and forensic payoff we're conditioned to expect from a big studio movie. "Zodiac" comes with its own built-in frustration. Perhaps for just that reason it keeps playing on in your head; it may take a while before you resolve your own feelings about the movie. But on its own dogged, darkly seductive terms, it seems to me Fincher's best, most mature work—not as flashy or thrilling (or self-regarding) as "The Game" or the promiscuously provocative "Fight Club," but one more deeply engaged with its characters. It's the first Fincher movie in which the style serves the subject, rather than the other way around.
Gyllenhaal's Graysmith is an awkward, shy young San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist whose love of puzzles hooks him on the case, which he pursues with a single-minded fervor long after the trail goes cold and others abandon the hunt. Initially, Gyllenhaal seems uncomfortable in the role—he's playing nerdiness, instead of being a nerd—but he grows into the part. Robert Downey Jr. is the Chronicle's ace crime reporter Paul Avery, a caustic, tormented journalist whose obsession with the Zodiac killer proves a toxic mix with his own spiraling alcoholism. The case also transforms the life of the SFPD's homicide detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), whose reputation is both burnished and tarnished by his pursuit of the killer, and his more diffident partner, William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), who is worn down by the endless frustrations of the hunt. The specter of the Zodiac consumes and contorts each of these men, affecting their marriages, their minds and their identities.
Fincher pursues the story with the same bloodhound tenacity, burrowing deep into the procedural details of detection, his sharp eye alert to the psychological shifts of his characters. This is a new Fincher: gone are the fantasy figures who populated his earlier films. The feverish emotional temperature is turned down to a simmer. He focuses his bravura technique less on the crimes of the Zodiac—though we see them, in all their horror—than on the collateral damage that follows in their wake as the case sprawls from decade to decade, haunting everyone it touches, a riddle that refuses to come to rest.