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Killer Stories

"Zodiac" revels in our obsessions.

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After a five-year absence from filmmaking, the director of such stylized thrillers as "Se7en," "The Game" and "Fight Club" returns with a surprisingly low-key film that is still engrossing, a movie about the intense desire to know what happened.

Obsession permeates David Fincher's story of the Zodiac Killer, who haunted Northern and Southern California throughout the 1970s, only to disappear without a trace.

Fincher obsessively re-creates the time period, when the media pounced on yet another juicy story about a serial killer. This one claimed to kill for the sport — he was hung up on the classic film "The Most Dangerous Game," in which humans were hunted. Even decades after the killer claimed his last victim, the public has hungered for an answer, evidenced by Zodiac's recurring presence in books and movies. Among all this hyped-up sensationalism hangs a question, hinted at but never spoken: Did the Zodiac Killer even exist?

There are several suggestions buried in the movie that imply Zodiac was, at the very least, blown out of proportion by the media. "He just wants the publicity," one character says after it's discovered that Zodiac is taking credit for crimes he couldn't possibly have committed. Did he commit any of them? Thoughts such as these feel like impertinent intrusions into a crack suspense story, but irony often intrudes into a work of popular fiction that tries to tell the real story. "Zodiac" is both an enjoyable whodunit and a nagging reminder that true crime stories are not the most trustworthy places to get your information.

"Zodiac" begins on July 4, 1969. (All scene changes are accompanied by subtitles declaring how many days, months or years have passed.) A young couple out on lovers' lane is shot to death by a shadowy figure. Soon after another murder, the San Francisco Chronicle receives a second letter from a person claiming to be the killer. He wants to be called Zodiac. We are introduced to the principals: detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo); the Chronicle's investigative reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.); and the newspaper's cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who, in a particularly postmodern bit of information, ended up writing the book on which the movie is based. They're all fixated on the case. They can't find the killer, and never do.

The actors cast to portray these three main characters may or may not resemble the actual men, but you can tell each was carefully selected to fill an individual need for a Hollywood movie. Ruffalo's detective Toschi is worn around the edges from lack of sleep but is still able to draw sharp lines between his personal feelings and the necessities of duty. Downey Jr.'s reporter is just crazy enough to be the perfect man for the story, downing excessive amounts of booze, pills and cigarette smoke as he quips about the killer's letters. Gyllenhaal, who looks like the youngest of the bunch, has the perfect face of innocence to play a "boy scout" who obsessively tracks down clues long after the police have given up — because, he says, "no one else will." What a kid. You half expect someone to put him in a headlock and give him some noogies.

It's difficult to understand how these characters are so conventional when faced with more thought-provoking material. Fincher's work reminds us mid-film of "Dirty Harry," a movie that seems even sillier contrasted with the more true-to-life plot in "Zodiac." The former film's titular cop assaults legality in order to bag Scorpio, the young, hippie-ish killer without a conscience, while the detectives of our movie are hamstrung by arguments over jurisdiction and an inability to obtain a simple warrant. When the cops in "Zodiac" find Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) wearing the same rare combat boots as the killer, plus a Zodiac-brand watch and a boastful sneer, we may wish that, like Dirty Harry, they could pull out a .44-caliber Magnum and ask him if he's feeling lucky. But they have to let him go.

"Zodiac" tries hard to give us the real story, polishing it enough to be entertaining (it must be, at two-and-a-half hours). But though it touches on obsessions of all kinds, it never fully owns up to the one it shares with the rest of the media for sensational stories — be they serial killers, missing white women, abandoned babies or coke-snorting celebs.

Hundreds of area residents have been murdered since the Zodiac Killer last struck, Ruffalo's Toschi astutely points out. And yet Graysmith, his book and the movie press on, determined to know. (R) 158 min. **** S

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