Zodiac is a film to lose yourself in. Directed by David Fincher with a perfectionist’s eye for performance and an obsessive’s attention to detail, it’s also the director’s first film that’s primarily about people, instead of its own impressive ideas. That’s not to diminish the impressive accomplishments he’s made to date, especially in the modern classics Se7en and Fight Club, but to underscore how Zodiac intensifies and deepens the connection between technical facility and sublime impact.

Fincher wants to show what’s going on inside the heads of his characters, but he uses an impossibly omniscient camera view to eerie effect. What better way is there to tell the story of the bogeyman than from the point of view of a supernatural surveillance camera? Zodiac is like God’s scary campfire tale for modern city dwellers. Digital effects give Fincher his arrestingly chilly establishing shot of fireworks going off over the San Francisco skyline, and seamlessly integrated matte paintings determinedly recreate the various skylines and street-level views of a city that no longer exists outside the collective consciousness of all those who remember being there. At one point the killer takes a cab ride, and the camera locks onto its overhead shot with absurd precision, spinning tightly around its own Z axis to follow the taxi around corners. Eventually the cab driver gets a bullet in the head, and the camera then draws slowly back from the cab, which the killer vacates and cooly flees, as if on a high crane. I’m pretty sure the cab in this shot is a 3D model, a digital miniature on the virtual backlot where Fincher executes so much of his film with an obsessive clarity of vision. The bulk of his mood-setting takes place in these early scenes, which are packed to the gills with visual illusions. (At one point, the film stops dead to take in a time-lapse view of the 48-floor Transamerica Pyramid being constructed overhead.)

Much of the live-action footage has the same chilly quality as the virtual environments. On Se7en, Fincher and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, struggled to resolve shadow detail on celluloid by opting for an extra photochemical step called the bleach-bypass process, which retains more silver in the release prints to preserve nuances of detail. For Zodiac, he opted to use the Viper, the same digital camera selected by Michael Mann for Collateral and Miami Vice, which is known for capturing detail in low-light situations. The result is a magnificent darkness — especially during the first few reels, in which the film’s only actual murder scenes unfold, Fincher’s widescreen night unfolds in the background with the same blank quality of a David Lynch abyss. That thought of random violence erupting out of that forbidding emptiness makes the first killing, which takes place on a lover’s lane with “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” blaring on a car radio, far more disquieting. Fincher doesn’t resort to shock tactics or amplified gruesomeness, but the idea that something may be hidden within all that yawning negative space is frightening.

Zodiac is about that unknowable darkness, and what happens when men who believe they are performing detective work find themselves drawn toward it.

The film’s ostensible protagonist is San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, though Graysmith doesn’t really begin to behave in protagonist-like fashion until the film’s final third when — motivated perhaps by the simple sense that the notorious Zodiac was on the verge of getting away with murder — he takes an acute interest in mapping out and deciphering the particulars of the case. Gyllenhaal’s co-stars, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, essentially mop the floor with him, which is a function of their experience as actors as well as the more showy roles they’re given. Gyllenhaal has to inhabit the life of an ordinary nerd; Downey and Ruffalo get to play the cinematic archetypes of the boozy journalist and the hard-boiled detective. Dry as Downey is, the film lights up a little bit when he’s on the screen — he gets the lion’s share of the film’s punchlines. And Ruffalo, resplendent in suspenders and bow tie, is the consummate professional, working across county lines and jurisdictions to try and triangulate the Zodiac’s identity.

Watching Zodiac, and gaining an understanding of how much that type of unsatisfying real-world mystery must mean to Fincher, puts a new spin on his signature films. In Se7en, the killer was, of course, a horrifying parody of religious earnestness, seeking to strike out against the world’s sins by inflicting entirely new degrees of pain and suffering on very human symbols of his bile. But John Doe was also a show-off, and his recipe for self-aggrandizement included capture, an eventually that clearly wasn’t in the plan for the Zodiac. And in Fight Club, Tyler Durden was more than a charming and dangerous sociopath — he was the antihero that lives inside the hero. And so it is with the Zodiac killer, who takes on characteristics of both characters. He can’t resist dancing around the cops and newspapermen who would love to take him down, dancing around them with taunts and ciphers. But his accidental triumph comes not because he’s a criminal mastermind (in the end, it’s not even clear that Zodiac was actually responsible for all of the murders he tried to take credit for) but because he takes up unwitting residence inside the minds of good men. He’s the shadow dancing around the corner of the eye, the itch that can never be scratched.

Fincher and Zodiac go a long way toward fingering a killer, but they keep real closure tantalizingly out of reach. Once I had spent 150 minutes with a movie that loaded me up with data, point and counterpoint, tantalizing digressions and puzzling evidence, I had entered a kind of trance. Open to suggestion, I no longer knew what to think about the identity of this murderer. Was it one man or multiple men? Were the killer and the person writing the letters even the same man? Does that fingerprint expert really have his shit together? Here’s a movie that earns every foot of its maddening, hypnotizing length. A shorter film would have nowhere near the capacity to engender confusion and dismay in its viewers — a state of mind that closely mirrors the moods experienced by Gyllenhaal’s character. Again and again, the film fades to black, signaling another impending passage (denoted in subtitles) of months or years of time.

Fincher has proved himself time and again a master storytelling strategist, and his most unexpected gambit here must be the emergence in only the film’s final third of a traditional Hollywood-style narrative, complete with a rooting interest in the fate of Gyllenhaal’s crusading cartoonist (wife Chloe Sevigny leaves him amid piles of evidence and notes on the case and, natch, takes the kids), whose investigation takes him past doggedness to foolhardiness and back again. He stars in the film’s spookiest sequence, which involves a creaky floor, a creepy dude, and a whole bunch of film cans. And, near the very end of it all, he comes face to face — gaping, wide-eyed, in a fashion that exudes more desperation than satisfaction — with the man that he believes called himself the Zodiac.

In any other film, this would be the final scene and the money shot, but Fincher can’t resist taking the story a little farther, propelling us one more time into the future — you’d think everyone involved would have declared the case closed, but no — for a belated police line-up where one of the Zodiac’s early victims, exhibiting all the self-composure of an electric-shock patient, hesitantly fingers the mug shot of his assaulter. As the credits start to roll, “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” blares one more time on the film’s soundtrack, the signature refrain of the villain abiding in a man’s unconscious. The narrative effect may be one of closure, but the recurrence of that damned song throws the doors wide open again. It’s a moment of despair that culminates a film of great sensitivity and humanity. The bogeyman has taken up residence, and Fincher shines a dark light on the psychic trauma that follows all of us to the grave.

Directed by David Fincher

Written by James Vanderbilt

Based on the book by Robert Graysmith

Cinematography by Harris Savides

Film editing by Angus Wall (and Kirk Baxter?)

Production Design by Donald Graham Burt

Visual Effects by Digital Domain, Matte World Digital, and Lola Visual Effects

USA, 2007

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Grass Valley Viper camera system)

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