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  • First you see the light. Then you really see the light.

*Zodiac (R)

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
As if there was any doubt before, Zodiac offers further proof that director David Fincher is simply in a class of his own. From the moment the old-school Paramount logo introduces the film's July 4, 1969 setting, Zodiac seems destined to be nothing short of a masterpiece.

The big-screen adaptation of Robert Graysmith's two Zodiac killer novels, Zodiac recounts the unsolved serial murders that occurred over a 10-month span in Northern California in the late '60s and examines the vice grip this story held over area citizens and crime investigators. Graysmith understood this terror firsthand as a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who became so obsessed with the Zodiac case, he lost his job and his family. Zodiac methodically illustrates the tri-county investigation, which is broken down, detail by meticulous detail, in agonizing but spectacular fashion.

Unlike some of Fincher's previously best-known work (Fight Club, The Game, Se7en), this film revels in harking back to a past era. There are no computers searching databases for fingerprints and handwriting samples, just typewriters and eagle eyes building a case, one clue at a time.

Though detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are the ones charged with gathering clues, there is no one better at deciphering them than Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is so consumed by these murders that eating and sleeping become secondary to his obsession.

Despite the conviction with which Gyllenhaal throws himself into the role, the real standout here is Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, the Chronicle's drunken ace reporter. His commanding performance gives the film a much-needed sense of humor to help the 2 hour and 40 minute running time fly by.

The third piece of the puzzle is Ruffalo, who always brings a sharp intellectualism to his characters, as he does here with Toschi, who he imbues with fascinating details like a penchant for bathrobes and an insatiable appetite for animal crackers. The rest of the supporting cast is fantastic from top to bottom: Brian Cox, Donal Logue, Elias Koteas, James LeGros, Philip Baker Hall, Dermot Mulroney, Chloe Sevigny, Clea DuVall, Adam Goldberg and, perhaps most importantly, two deliciously creepy turns from John Carroll Lynch and Charles Fleischer.

On top of superb acting across the board, Zodiac excels at capturing the general attitude of fear in San Francisco, the same way Spike Lee captured Manhattan's paranoia in Summer of Sam. Fincher's gifted ear for music (Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" frames the picture) helps evoke the period with a style and spirit all his own. The violence is kept to a surprising minimum, but when it strikes, it is vicious and jarring.

The anticlimactic ending, appropriately low-key, completely satisfies, thanks to the actors' steel-eyed performances. By the end of the epic journey that is Zodiac, you might feel as exhausted as Graysmith, but you'll also buzz with a fantastic sense of accomplishment, as if experiencing a Fincher contact high.

scene@csindy.com

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