David Fincher’s two-and-a-half-hour procedural about San Francisco’s notorious Zodiac Killer is serious-minded, focused, and purposeful — but the question is whether you’ll be as interested in the endeavor as he is. Zodiac’s true-crime rigor withholds the momentum and thrill of the hunt that fans of Seven and Fight Club might be expecting. The terrain is familiar from hundreds of crime dramas: tireless clue-chasing against all odds, baroque serial-killer codes of behavior, public dread and decade-specific detail, but Fincher maps it all here not for titillation, but out of due diligence.
Trailers suggested Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist as latter-day Hardy Boy, throwing geek smarts against the case that eludes the grasp of cops and newsies. But Zodiac’s diffuse perspective lets events unfold and spread out rather than latching to the will of particular participants. (Fincher also respects the case’s unsolved status, a bit of knowledge that aids the experience of the movie’s, shall we say, workmanlike pace.) Mark Ruffalo’s strikingly ordinary detective seems ineffectual and overwhelmed. In a terrific humiliation and example of culture creep, his Zodiac case drags on so long that it gets ground up for movie fodder in 1971’s Dirty Harry, where he and Gyllenhaal bump into each other.
But, man, get ready to hum tunelessly along to someone else’s obsession, with a lot of racing through libraries, working the phones, abstruse speculation, the inevitable comparison being All the President’s Men but even more resistant to suspense. Unbalancing precise turns by an excellent supporting cast, wombat-eyed Gyllenhaal is finally a sinkhole in the film’s indefatigable third act. Fittingly, several paragraphs of info-rich epilogue conclude the inconclusive saga.