'Zodiac' an epic exploration of famous unsolved case

"Zodiac" is a story of obsession focused on the serial killer who taunted police and terrorized the Bay Area in the early 1970s.

Based on two books by Robert Graysmith, it is at once a police procedural and an epic look at the ruined lives of the men who hunted the Zodiac killer down-some for decades-until they reached a breaking point.

But this drama is not rooted in sudden revelations and tense moments like traditional thrillers or TV crime dramas. "Zodiac" is a slow, frustrating burn. It's two-and-a-half hours of a mounting police investigation with no resolution.

The period look of "Zodiac" is meticulously drawn, and the cultural touchstones are all there. The movie was filmed digitally, but it employs muted colors and lighting that recalls '70s movies. It opens during Fourth of July celebrations in Vallejo, California. Fireworks are shot off in the streets. The jubilation is ironically undercut by a song from the joyous hippie musical "Hair," whose lyric "How can people be so heartless?" turns ominous given this new context. A correlative treatment is also given to Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," which becomes a theme of sorts for the Zodiac, who preys on young couples.

The story itself is also a product of its time. A lack of cooperation between law agencies plagues inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). For audiences used to the advanced technology and camera trickery on "CSI," their methods will seem archaic and the movie a little old-fashioned. Those difficulties are nothing compared to the endless stream of dead ends and wrong turns that come with a killer who goes public, sending threatening letters and cryptograms to the newspapers.

"Zodiac" plays more like real cop work and less like a swift-moving TV show. The very thing that makes the movie unique is also what makes it frustrating as hell. An hour-long episode of "Law & Order" will have a "Eureka!" moment based on circumstantial evidence right before every commercial break. This kind of 'instant guilt' is easier on the audience, and it has become a convention. Every time the detectives in "Zodiac" gain momentum, the weight of pesky issues like the burden of proof ends up sinking their investigations.

Director David Fincher ("Seven") is able to cover the personal lives of the main characters, including alcoholic journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), in shorthand. Rather than a movie full of Gyllenhaal or Ruffalo arguing with their spouses over how much time they spend away from their families, we get an economical take. Glimpses of the toll that their obsession has taken are all the movie can really afford, and it is convincing enough.

The scope involved in "Zodiac" reminds me of Oliver Stone's fascination with the Kennedy assassination in "JFK." Where Stone's film is a tour de force of bombastic editing and technical expertise, though, Fincher's vision is a more personal, restrained one. The long running time and constant jumping forward in time will throw off those expecting a tidy ending, but the cumulative effect is devastating.

The audience is left feeling like Robert Graysmith, whose books show him craving that one moment of recognition with the killer that will assure him of his guilt. A 1978 letter mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle, apparently from the Zodiac killer, reads "I am waiting for a good movie about me. Who will play me?"

The movie is here, and his question remains unanswered.

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