*SPOILERS*

David Fincher shows restraint in his most recent killer-portrait pic. It has none of the blood-lust of Se7en or Fight Club, though there are a few gut-wrenching scenes. Instead, it is a compelling sleuth story that leaves the audience with a sense of unease. Just how many killers aren’t brought to justice due to one crucial missing link in a chain of evidence?

It is an exploration of the killings of the ‘Zodiac’ throughout L.A. in the late 60s and 70s. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the ‘boy scout’ cartoonist at The San Francisco Chronicle who becomes obsessed with the case when the Zodiac begins sending ciphers to the paper. Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned to the case. Both actors are charismatic in their own way. Gyllenhaal is appealingly eager and flustered. Ruffalo is a giant screen presence, playing the hard and passionate cop, broadening from his brief character in Collateral. Here, the cop and the obsessive paper-boy are thrown off the scent by many red-herrings and mix-ups, as is the audience. Robert-Downey Jr. has a questionable role as Paul Avery, crime reporter and sometime friend of Robert Graysmith, but one wonders if he’s just there because he’s so brilliant to watch when playing a drunk.

The film spans many years as Graysmith writes his book on the killer, and the effect of Zodiac on the characters’ micro-worlds is prominent. The script by James Vanderbilt (based on Graysmith’s book) is tight, but it must have been a difficult task to form a narrative around compelling speculation. An unsolved case means an unsolved screenplay, but it is effectively handled with the recurrence of a character from the film’s beginning.

I enjoyed the film because of the questions it raised about the effect of violent perpetrators, and the reasons an individual or a nation can become obsessed or fascinated by them. I enjoyed the questions about the relation of violence to publicity, and violence to voyeurism. One wonders if the filmmakers or any of the actors became just as frustrated by the case as the characters.

I also enjoyed the performances, and while I don’t think this is in a class with Fight Club, it is a smart and quiet film, with a powerhouse performance by Ruffalo. Definitely worth a look.

Note:

To Adam and Andy and all others who are privy to the Daniels’ dictionary of alternate names for the most awesome alternative film-stars, I would like to add to the list which includes Pheymour and Parsgaard, these two names:

Muffalo and Chevigny.

I await your approval.
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