David Fincher is starting to create quite a little oeuvre for himself: a pitch-dark body of work obsessed with the problem of theodicy—the justification of the existence of evil in the world. Se7en (1995) took the serial-killer procedural to absurd, yet strangely haunting, depths of existential gloom. Morgan Freeman's closing line in that movie—"Ernest Hemingway once said, 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part."—could serve as an epigraph for the rest of the director's work. * Fincher's protagonists live in a dank, brutal, senseless world, but they go down fighting, whether it's Brad Pitt's impulsive cop in Se7en, Edward Norton's Jekyll-and-Hyde schlemiel in Fight Club, or now, Jake Gyllenhaal's single-minded amateur sleuth in Fincher's newest film, Zodiac (Paramount), which opened today.
The real-life story of the Zodiac killer is the most Fincherian of murder mysteries: a still-unsolved string of brutal killings in California, beginning in 1969 and stretching across the next decade or more (no one really knows how many murders the Zodiac was responsible for, since he may have claimed credit for crimes he didn't commit). An unparalleled media manipulator, the killer sent handwritten notes to the press with threats that eerily presage the faceless terrorism of our own age: Publish this coded message on the front page, the Zodiac warns in one note, or I just might wipe out a busload of schoolchildren.
Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, the newspaper cartoonist at the San FranciscoChronicle who turned himself into an amateur Zodiac expert, publishing two books on the murders that served as the basis for James Vanderbilt's densely detailed script. His colleague and half-unwilling collaborator in the investigation is an alcoholic crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr., who's gone from being a brilliant rogue with addiction issues to playing them fabulously on screen). Mark Ruffalo is Dave Toschi, a dogged police detective who in real life inspired both Steve McQueen's Bullitt and Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry (though Ruffalo seems to be channeling Peter Falk here, complete with rumpled raincoat and head-scratching doorknob inquiries). The huge and very effective supporting cast includes Anthony Edwards as Toschi's partner, Chloë Sevigny as Graysmith's nerdy wife, and John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen, a creepy pedophile who's one of the prime Zodiac suspects despite a lack of hard physical evidence.
Beware, Se7en fans looking for an imaginatively dispatched new victim every 15 minutes: After a few harrowing early scenes, almost all the violence happens off-screen, with the focus not on the terror of the killings but on the grinding day-to-day frustration of the cops and reporters trying to stop them. Zodiac is a cerebral, often bone-dry police procedural that demands close attention from the viewer. It takes us down blind alleys that, in a fictional cops-and-bad-guys movie, would count as red herrings. In the re-creation of the real police investigation of a still-open case, of course, that misdirection is crucial to the story. Zodiac's labyrinthine plot feels, at times, like a cross between a trip to the library and a visit to the DMV: Bureaucratic squabbles about police jurisdiction are as important as blood-spatter patterns and bullet trajectories. But the movie's power is that it makes us all into Robert Graysmiths, obsessive wonks keen to solve the Zodiac's riddle. Graysmith himself remains something of a cipher—why did he care so much about the case that he risked his wife and children in order to pursue it?—but ultimately Zodiac is a movie about the search itself, not the psychology of the seeker.
Vanderbilt's script moves so quickly from one information-crammed scene to the next that it's tough to keep up at times, but it also crackles with a grim wit. Fielding a phone call from the self-dubbed Zodiac, lawyer Marvin Belli (Brian Cox) asks him, "Is there something I could call you that's a little less ominous?"* And without ever pressing its point, Zodiac reminds us of the mediatized, technologized era in which we find ourselves—an era that, even as the Zodiac killer foreshadowed it, arrived too late to catch him. The means by which Graysmith eventually homes in on the killer (or the man who, perhaps wrongly, he believes is the killer) are so heartbreakingly low-tech, you want to travel back in time with your laptop and give him a hand.
Zodiac is long—over two and a half hours—but when it's over, you almost wish it had gone on for another 20 minutes, just to see every end get tied up. But of course, all the ends are never tied up in real life, even when the murderer is found. To undertake a thriller of this length and scope with no prospect of a morally satisfying resolution, Fincher must have been a little nuts himself. We'll see whether audiences used to the tidy one-hour cases on CSI and Law & Order will follow him down Zodiac's murky, twisted, and ultimately dead-end street. It may not sound like it from that description, but it's a hell of a ride.
Correction, March 3: This piece originally misquoted Morgan Freeman's and Ernest Hemingway's quotes, saying "Ernest Hemingway once said, 'It's a fine world, and worth fighting for.' I agree with the first part." The quote is, "Ernest Hemingway once said, 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part." ( Return to the corrected sentence.)