by Ed Symkus & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f you like your thrillers direct and to the point, you might have trouble sitting through Zodiac's rambling, nearly three-hour running time. And if you prefer your films' heroes to pull off a Bruce Willis or a Clint Eastwood -- catching the villain and blowing him away in satisfying style -- then Zodiac is not for you.

But there's not much more to be nitpicked at in David Fincher's sharp, engrossing study of California's notorious Zodiac murders of the late 1960s and early '70s. Many of the heinous acts are played out in all their gory glory on the screen, but they happen quickly and they make up only a small part of the film. Zodiac is much more about the people looking into the killings -- two cops and two newspaper guys -- than it is about the murders. It concerns the toll it took on them: how their interest turned into obsession.

Spanning more than two decades (1969-91), the film is based on the book Zodiac, by Robert Graysmith, the political cartoonist who became caught up in trying to solve the case. It begins with an unprovoked and horrifying gun attack on a couple parked in a deserted spot by a man who then, off-camera, phones the shooting in to the police, taking full credit for it.

Before long, the first in a string of coded messages and handwritten letters from him arrives at the San Francisco Chronicle, where neat, excitable puzzle geek Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) draws cartoons, and sloppy, slightly prissy, world-weary Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) bangs out stories on the crime beat.

Cut to police inspector partners David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), who are assigned to crack this case, the likes of which they've never seen before. Like the two fellows at the Chronicle, the two cops don't have much in common.

Fincher neatly cuts between Toschi and Williams talking, and Graysmith and Avery talking, each pair discussing the same thing, but in different places. The chronologically told story is moved forward by words and numbers at the bottom of the screen that note the passage of time -- ranging from a couple of hours to many years. It becomes a bit intrusive, but it remains a good gimmick, and aids in hammering home the frustration that's felt by everyone working on the case.

Yet, obviously fascinated by passing time and how it worked against everyone but the killer, Fincher also gets playful at one point, pulling off a visual coup by showing the time-lapse construction of San Francisco's iconic Transamerica Pyramid, from skeletal beginnings to completion, with office lights being turned on, in less than a minute.

And as he's done in past films (Seven, Fight Club), he proves masterful in conveying an unnerving sense of menace. It's done blatantly here when cameras move in close to people who are about to be murdered. It's also done subtly, particularly in a scene where the two cops, along with an associate (Elias Koteas), are interviewing possible suspect Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch). There's no music, just soft, creepy ambient sounds, and lots of facial close-ups.

Although the film moves slowly, it maintains a balance of moods. Questions arise about the difference between good evidence and circumstantial evidence; bigger questions loom concerning the identity of Zodiac and whether he's really responsible for all the murders he lays claim to. Though it's always nice to see Chloe Sevigny light up the screen, her character -- Graysmith's anxious wife -- isn't needed in the story, and pads the film's length. But the inclusion of a well-placed clip from Dirty Harry (set in San Francisco and focused on a serial killer) makes for a nice filmmaker's wink to the audience.

The pace does pick up in the last hour, when the focus shifts to Graysmith's one-man crusade to solve the case. His eagerness and squeaky-clean innocent demeanor even give the film a few small doses of levity.

Zodiac is filled with great music of the times (that's Jimmy Page playing the guitar lead in Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man"), and there's a fantastic screen dynamic between Downey and Gyllenhaal; nevertheless, the story's open ending may frustrate viewers as much as it did the actual people depicted. But Zodiac is still a long and winding trip that's worth taking.


Worth $9

Rated R

Directed by David Fincher

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny

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