Reviewed by David Levinson

EXTOLLING the sentiment behind Richard Connell’s short story, The Most Dangerous Game, the uncaptured Zodiac Killer, who, across Northern California drew a known body count of five (in addition to other, “inconclusively proposed” killings), explains that he kills for much the same reason Connell’s character does: “[B]ecause it is so much fun. It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest, because man is the most dangerous animal of all...” The message is delivered via cipher to The San Francisco Chronicle, decoded by an elderly couple from Salina, Kansas, and, as far as psychological profiles go, is about all you’ll get in Fincher’s own hand-wringing of history’s threads (aside, of course, from one reporter’s suggestion that the killer is a “latent homosexual”).

Which goes to say that, those seeking the sideshow histrionics of Se7en are a long way from home, Dorothy: The killer in Zodiac may exhibit the same flair for self-promotion as Doe, yet less than funnel into the final punctuation mark of Spacey’s bald grin, he deserts himself on a lost highway of dead leads, feral taunts, and stoo-pid luck.

In contrast to this luxe freeform, the man as a breathing entity appears onscreen four times (not counting suspect appearances); yet rather than unnerve, these encounters are charged with the awkwardness of trying to grind acres of myth into due flesh-and-bone. Meanwhile, without resorting to craggy political metaphor, Fincher uses the killing scenes to suggest a quiet passing of ‘60s idealism: Indeed, in the first two, sodashop trysts are quickly terminated by Zodiac’s muffled entry. But it’s in the third where things reach a kind of symphonic overlay, as, in one of the movie’s few trick shots, the camera locks onto a cab from overhead; as it then traces its path to the corner of Washington and Cherry streets, a radio station broadcasts the nervous twitter of callers questioning what the killer’s next move might be, before the cab is brought to a halt, the driver shot, and the perpetrator lapsed into nightfall.

When inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) finally arrive on the scene, the sequined-dress of San Francisco’s nightscape has graduated into a suffocating amber, as if the sun blew out in the interim. Upon later questioning two patrolling officers about why they hadn’t seized – or even questioned – a man seen shambling away from the scene, the men claim that he hadn’t matched their suspect description of a “black man.” But, more than grim Rosarch of race bias (though granted in a naively assuming, rather than outrightly hateful way), the cab sequence also taps into a kind of slumberparty panic, which it deliberately offsets against the cold snaking of the camera’s surveillance. It’s a clever and succinct collapsing of private and public, in which the city becomes an open billboard for projected fear and desire; surveying it all from above, there’s a feeling of wound possibility, of watched tracts being carved in the antfarm of humanity.

In their proximity to the case, Toschi and Armstrong make up a fold of people whose lives become enmeshed in the search for the Zodiac Killer, one that that extends to San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). As a policier, the film is surprisingly inert, and for all its labyrinthine plotting, seems never quite willing to abandon the viewier: paths may lead nowhere, yet detail about the case is carefully herded and dispensed, unwilling to ascend to the meta-confusion of The Big Sleep. Instead, in his stunt running-time and dramatic scope, Fincher seems more suited to conveying a feeling of information unhinged, endlessly parsed through until it becomes a self-devoured carapace. At one point, almost 3/4 of the way in, Graysmith and Toschi’s paths finally converge at a screening of Dirty Harry – the Don Siegel-helmed riff on the killings –, and as the camera halts outside the theatre, there’s an overwhelming sense of futility, as film duly observes film, unable to break outside its own inertia. Nevertheless, even here, decades after the killer has dissolved into phantom pain, the movie fails to relent from its total immersion in his presence. Because what’s ultimately at stake is less how the killer evaded capture, and more how he managed to turn himself into a bona fide Murdoch-for-the-TV-dinner-set - harnessing all media channels to impress an icy transfixion on America’s senses.

In which case, the Zodiac’s final victim is Graysmith, who persists in frenzied pursuit until his boyscout fervor has hardened into grim obsession – the monument to which becomes his total neglect of wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny), who hovers precipitously around the film’s edges until she finally decides to leave him one night. The fact is there’s nothing valiant about Graysmith’s quest: As he plunders police archives by moonlight, and enacts fly-by rendezvouses with Toschi, he remains guided by one consistent notion: “I... I need to know who he is. I... I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it's him.” Unwilling to fold to Graysmith’s mood however, the film fails to adjust its even temperament, a fact which might be read as a case of clean discipline but ultimately feels like repression: Torn between idly surverying history and embodying Graysmith’s erosion, Fincher settles for a muddy middleground. What’s worse is that in the end, less than destroyed by his work, Graysmith is pandered to by a final scene that almost undoubtedly confirms the subject of his suspicions as the killer. Which may be Fincher’s final shot at transcendence – art closing history’s abscess – yet feels about as useful as a ribbon on a corpse.