David Fincher's "Zodiac" is the most disciplined and least-flashy movie in his career. A 2 hour, 45 minute overview of California's "Zodiac" serial-killer case from almost the start to the finish--a nearly thirty year tale that is less about the crimes, specifically, but more about obsession: the obsessions that sparked the crimes and the obsessions, in turn, sparked by them. Over time as personalities change, careers and fortunes rise and fall, as the city morphs and hem-lines and side-burns flare and recede, the obsession burns and inflicts its own damage. It's a movie about that damage and the shockwaves that killers inflict beyond the immediate victims.
This is not to say that "Zodiac" is not violent--it is, at least for the first half-hour or so, but it is the cold-blooded casualness of the violence that stuns (at one point "Zodiac" is seen pummelling a woman and you realize to your horror that she is being stabbed--these are the least "theatrical" killings I've seen on-screen), and those expecting a gore-fest will be let down by the lack of screen-time devoted to the actual murders, but Fincher maintains a looming (that "L" word mentioned above) unease that infects later scenes with dread.
Stay to the end of the credits and you'll be presented will three big-screen pages of technical consultants (many of whom are the real-life characters portrayed in the film) and a long list of thanks to communities who figured in the convoluted path of the tale. Meticulously researched and painstakingly recreated (I've seen glowing comment threads from San Franciscans amazed at the scruplulousness of the production), the same care is also taken with the many performances from a non-stellar, but reliable cast of character-actors all doing subtle, nuanced work. From Robert Downey Jr.'s fussy turn as a scruffy San Francisco Chronicle reporter, to Anthony Edwards and Mark Rufalo as the two lead SFPD detectives investigating (you can imagine Rufalo's Detective Toschi serving as a model for both Steve McQueen's "Bullitt" and Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" even though his performance is far-afield of those star-turns), and Jake Gyllenhaal as the character involved longest with the case...except for the killer.
Fincher harkens back to the paranoid thrillers of the 70's, even going so far as to use the Paramount and Warners Studio logos from the era, and reviving the career of composer David Shire whose sombre, oppressive scores provided the low rumblings of such films as "The Conversation" and "All the President's Men."
But despite the intricacies of plot, the labyrinth of clues and puzzles, the shadowy corridors, darkened streets and blind alleys, the film is never allowed to lose focus or drag. One is never aware of the length of the film, only the passage of time in the film. And that's an amazing accomplishment, but not the last one.
Because for all the time-lapse CGI tricks Fincher employs (and some of the essential clues that are focussed on), there is an acknowledgement made of the most lethal serial killer: in the end, time gets all of us. Our life-histories catch up, and right or wrong, no one goes away unpunished.
"Zodiac" is a full-price ticket