The Zodiac killer is one of those true crime puzzles that capture the imagination. It has all the elements we like to obsess over: Like Jack the Ripper, he was never caught, so there are several theories as to who the killer was. Like Ted Bundy, the Zodiac was supremely intelligent and taunted his pursuers. Like Ed Gein, there were macabre aspects to the killing spree.

There’s a serviceable history of the Zodiac killer on Wikipedia if you’re interested. For our purposes you only need to know that in 1968 bodies started turning up around the bay area. Then letters were sent to area papers by a man claiming to be the murderer. These letters included coded puzzles in which the Zodiac claimed to have hidden his name. Only one was ever solved.

Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when these letters started to come in. Graysmith was a puzzle enthusiast and became intrigued with the killer. He eventually went on to write the book Zodiac is based on.

Zodiac isn’t so much a film about murder (It isn’t particularly bloody) as it is about obsession. Graysmith, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), the Chronicle’s crime reporter, and David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) the police detective who tried to solve the case for years, all become obsessed and pay a price for it.

The only weak spot in this film is Gylenhaal. He plays Graysmith as too nice a guy. You don’t believe that he’d put his obsession ahead of the safety of his family. When signs of his fixation come out, in little fits of anger here and there, they’re like bolts from the blue, very jarring.

The other performances are terrific. Downey plays Avery, a brilliant but self destructive reporter. Ruffalo is great as David Toschi, the cop who inspired Bullit, The Streets of San Francisco and Dirty Harry, except he’s a good detective who doesn’t cut corners and who believes in due process.

The script by James Vanderbilt does a good job of shaping a disparate true story into a coherent narrative. It’s scary, touching and funny in places. Great dialog.

Graysmith, in his book claims to have figured out that the Zodiac was Arthur Lee Allen. Since the publication of the book DNA evidence seems to have cleared Allen, but that is not for certain. So the mystery goes on.


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