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David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven, The Game) is one of my favorite modern directors, but nothing he's done so far prefigured this exacting, measured, balanced procedural about the serial killer who menaced San Francisco from 1968 through 1969, and the journalists and detectives, who, through professionalism, obsession, and meticulous and scrupulous attention to detail, utterly failed to catch him. It's a neat trick, and rare in crime movies. Fincher ably piles on the dread, and then . . . nothing. It is caught with nowhere to go, nagging, irritating, a paper clip lodged in the stomach lining.
Much has been written of the parallels between these characters and the obsessiveness of Fincher's own meticulous nature, which, while observable, interesting, and laudable, don't resonate as much as the parallels between the Zodiac's desire for the fame and attention of media sensationalism, and the public's own zeal (cinema-driven, in the case of a screening of ersatz Zodiac-killer Dirty Harry) for a sensational and retributive resolution. The entire cast does compelling character work, but Mark Ruffalo stands out as real-life detective David Toschi, the real-life inspiration for Steve McQueen's Bullitt and, yes, Dirty Harry. In Fincher's vision, however, Toschi's similarities with his loose-cannon vigilante cop doppelgangers goes no deeper than the way they holster their guns. Toschi is a man more concerned with justice than catharsis, and his journey is a mass of dead ends, paperwork, and hunches that can't be followed without sacrificing the rule of law. Toschi suspects, then Toschi knows, but Toschi can't prove. In his failure, Toschi provides Zodiac with something more important than catharsis: a moral center. This is a first rate thriller, but it's also a love letter to due process, shortcomings and all.