Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac
(Image: © Paramount Pictures)

Based on the coded, mostly undecipherable letters that the Zodiac killer sent to the press as a way to taunt them, it’s clear that the mysterious lunatic was a fan of patterns. Ironically, up to this point, director David Fincher’s resumé has reflected a few traceable cycles of its own. His first big feature, Alien 3, was dubbed mediocre; then came Seven, which was hailed a masterpiece. From there came The Game (average), Fight Club (spectacular) and then Panic Room (average). With Zodiac, he is due for another mindblower—but instead he churns out another decent-at-best effort.

How did this happen? Fincher is a fantastic director and he’s played the serial killer game before with outstanding success (anyone who is willing to put Gwyneth’s head in a box deserves some points), but his latest try is devoid of his trademark grit. While it’s understandable that he wants to branch out and try something new, such as making a chatty thriller in the vein of All The President’s Men, it doesn’t click and fails to be gripping throughout its hefty running time. Zodiac is a meandering, bland film that clocks in at nearly three hours and feels like at least eight.

The story traces the unsolved enigma of the Zodiac killer, a menace who plagues the San Francisco Bay area during the ‘60s and ‘70s, sending the press and cops in dizzying circles chasing their tails. He is never vividly shown in the film, but the (few) scenes where he attacks his victims off-screen—beginning with a young couple cozying up in a parking lot and not getting the climax they hope for—manage to be quietly haunting.

And then there’s the rest of it. A more-nebbish-than-usual Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle (and writer of the book Zodiac, from which the movie is based) who launches his own investigation to try and catch the killer. Why not, since the police, including inspectors Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), prove particularly useless. The film is loaded with talented actors—Robert Downey Jr. is playfully bizarre as fussy writer Paul Avery—stuck in thankless roles. Like the unidentified murderer himself, they each remain strangers.

Who are these people outside of their obsessive-compulsive desire to nail this guy? There is plenty of opportunity to flesh them out, but by the time the film ends, all we know is that Toschi likes animal crackers, Avery doesn’t like people to loom by his desk and Graysmith marries a woman (Chloe Sevigny) after the worst first date in history. Beyond that, they are nondescript people, the types you’d pass in the mall on the way to the food court and promptly forget.

A film about a serial killer that is heavy on dialogue and low on homicide, if done correctly, could be a refreshing change, a heady forensic study for the ‘CSI’ crowd. But the screenplay by James Vanderbilt (Basic) lacks punchy dialogue and feels more like a boring play in need of a ruthless editor. To his credit, Fincher does a good job capturing the style of the era and pulling together a solid cast, but there is little else to commend here. Zodiac is more Summer of Sam than Silence of the Lambs and, for this die-hard movie fan, that proves more distressing than a phantom killer on the loose.