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story.lead_photo.caption Inspector Bill Armstrong (ANTHONY EDWARDS, left, background) and Inspector Dave Toschi (MARK RUFFALO) are assigned to the case of a serial killer in Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures' thriller "Zodiac."

— As much character study as true crime procedural, David Fincher's low-key, brown and gray Zodiac is an engaging and precisely calibrated psychological thriller with a terrific ensemble cast and a surety of pacing that belies its almostthree-hour running time. It's a mature and deeply affecting work that, despite its early opening date, is destined to be considered one of the best Hollywood movies of 2007.

It gives us yet another account of the pursuit of the Zodiac killer, a presumed madman who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area, murdering at least five people in 1968 and 1969. For years he sent taunting letters and cryptograms to newspapers and police, eventually claiming as many as 37 victims, inspiring copycats and acquiring almost mythological standing.

Fictional versions of the Zodiac killer have been a staple of detective storiesever since, and about a year ago a movie about the case, Alex Bulkley's The Zodiac Killer, had a small theatrical run. The first movie based on the case was a quickie exploitation feature rushed out in April 1971, and seven months later Dirty Harry featured a villain called Scorpio whose actions mirrored the Zodiac's threats.

Dirty Harry ended with Clint Eastwood running down and killing Scorpio; in real life no one was ever arrested for the Zodiac killings. Though San Francisco police declared the investigation inactive in 2004, it remains open in several jurisdictions. And though Fincher's movie implicates a real person - now deceased - in the murders, there is much debate in the closed circuit of Zodiac hobbyists and investigators about whether Fincher's suspect was the actual killer.

As far as the film goes, it hews closely to the account provided by Robert Graysmith, a young political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle at the time the Zodiac's first letters began arriving. Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film, became obsessed with the hunt for the Zodiac and eventually wrote the two books upon which Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt base the movie. Fincher also insisted on conducting some original research on the case, and he, Graysmith and producer Brad Fischer spent several months reviewing case documents and re-interviewing surviving witnesses.

Whether Zodiac "solves" the puzzle of the murder rampage is beside the point, since Fincher's movie is as much a study of the psychological deterioration of Graysmith's character as it is a mystery. As the promotional tagline promises, "there's more than one way to lose your life to a serial killer."

While Graysmith and Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) come at the Zodiac from one angle, SFPD detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are charged with coordinating an investigation that sprawls over several jurisdictions. Toschi - the reallife model for Steve McQueen's Frank Bullitt and Eastwood's Harry Callahan - is a gravelthroated character who favors plaid sport coats with bow ties. Like Graysmith and Avery, healso could be counted among the Zodiac's tertiary victims. (Armstrong, a quieter, saner type, is able to avoid the crushing gravity of Zodiac's black hole.)

While all of the Zodiac's "canonical" crimes are depicted with a chilling degree of accuracy, for Fincher Zodiac represents a turn away from the macabre imagery and suffocation of his previous work (Fight Club, Se7en). It is grim and suspenseful but not gory. And it's probably too talky for most horror genre fans.

Fincher's notorious filming techniques - in which actors may be subjected to 70 or more takes before the director is satisfied - may in part be responsible for the deadpan naturalism of the performances, which feel exhausted and true. There's no electric sense of actors at playin these scenes, but something properly sober, taut and egoless. While Downey Jr. and Ruffalo have the richest - in terms of personality traits - characters to mine, the cast is uniformly perfect.

And if the movie is not, it's more due to the limits of the medium than any misstep by the filmmakers. Zodiac is the rare movie that seems too short. It's disappointing when Fincher fast-forwards four years through the simple application of a title card - we want to know what happened to these people in the interval. There are any number of stories worthy of further exploration. Graysmith's wife, Melanie (Chloe Sevigny), is a complex creature, Avery is left to dissipate and wheeze. But the conventions of the movies dictate that we have to give them up. How could Zodiac be improved? Maybe you could stretch it out over a couple of seasons on HBO.

No film has ever captured the uneasy, coming apart feeling that occasioned the curdling of the hippie-dippie 1960s dream so well. America may never have been so close to unraveling as it was from 1968 to 1972, that desperate, neurotic time of a half-measured war abroad and inchoate revolution at home. Lots of sick things were creepycrawling through the zeitgeist back then, and Fincher has let them seep into every frame of this movie. It's there in Avery's silk neck scarf, a hipster's garrote, and in the flashing hard eyes of Gyllenhaal's Graysmith, a young artist discovering, not exactly to his horror, that his metier is murder.

MovieStyle, Pages 37, 44 on 03/02/2007

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