4.5 stars

More about the obsessive search for the killer than about the killer itself, “Zodiac” is a slow moving, subtle thriller from the mind of David Fincher (“Se7en”, “Fight Club”). Its strong cast and compelling script make this the first great movie of the year, and hopefully one to watch in the far off award season.

In the late 1960s into the early 70s, the self-proclaimed Zodiac killer terrorized much of Northern California with his seemingly random shootings and cryptic messages to the press. San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) was assigned to the case and soon took cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) under his wing, after he offers a unique insight into the case. Working with Inspectors David Toschi and William Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards), the case consumes the men as they try to figure out who the mysterious Zodiac is.

Star studded cast lists can really go either way, it can make a film really good, or the clash of the egos mentality on set could destroy a film. And luckily for us it’s the former not the latter. Gyllenhaal keeps getting better and better since his breakout performance in “Donnie Darko” six years ago. I hesitate to say “performance of his career” since we have yet to see all he has to offer, but I wouldn’t be surprised that at the end of his career, this performance is listed among his best. Downey, Jr. has been slowly making a return since his legal and substance abuse troubles several years ago, and with this performance he says “I’m back.” He channels his checkered past to play the broken down, chain-smoking, alcoholic Avery, and adds an air of intrigue and mystery to what could have been an archetypal and stale reporter character.

Keep an eye on the rest of the cast, including Elias Koteas and Donal Logue as cops in charge of other Zodiac related cases, Chloe Sevigny as Graysmith’s doting but frustrated girlfriend turned wife, and John Carroll Lynch as the prime Zodiac suspect. They all turn out great performances that pump up the caliber of the flick.

The story the actors tell is just as compelling as the performances they give. Based on Graysmith’s non-fiction books about the hunt for the Zodiac, writer James Vanderbilt scores a hit after a string of critical flops (“Darkness Falls” and “The Rundown” come to mind), and delivers a unique thriller. Where others may have concocted a sweeping fictional story about who the Zodiac is, and why he did what he did, Vanderbilt stayed with the real fear of the story- we don’t know anything about the Zodiac. We don’t know who he is, or what his motives were. And there is nothing more terrifying to humans than the unknown, especially the unknown that can and will kill you.

And what is great is that it totally redefines the “period drama.” That’s usually a designation applied only to grand epics set against the Civil War, or something similar. But why can’t a movie set in the 70s about a uniquely 70s event that captures the essence of the time period be considered a period drama? As we grow further and further away from certain distinct periods of time, and expand our capabilities of capturing the time period on film, the definition of a “period drama” becomes more and more broad.

It gets a little slow at points, but the drawn out cat and mouse aspect is one of the things that make it such a gripping film. I want to see more from everyone involved, as this is fantastic work, but no where near the pinnacle, from the entire cast and crew.


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