Watching the detectives

This thriller defies conventions to show the true personal cost of a murder case

<strong>Zodiac (1

"That was the most frustrating film ever!" hissed the woman behind me, at the end of Zodiac. I could see her point. She'd come to watch what she'd thought would be a nice, grisly thriller about a bloodthirsty lunatic. Instead she got two and a half hours of newspaper reporters barging through revolving doors (quite a trick if you can manage it) and haggling with police over every shred of evidence. But - and I didn't say this to her, because she really had a bee in her bonnet - Zodiac is often quite brilliant, possibly for some of the same reasons that left her fuming.

The signs suggest this will be a standard serial-killer film. For a start, it's about a real-life killer, known as "the Zodiac", who targeted sweethearts in late-1960s San Francisco, before expanding his brief and accruing a large but still-unconfirmed body count. The picture is directed by David Fincher, who redefined the serial-killer genre with his stylishly macabre thriller Seven (1995). It begins with a brace of shocking murders, filmed almost lovingly, with a tender regard for the slow-motion spray of blood. I think Fincher should have made these scenes slightly less, well, exciting. In contrast to the deliberate slowness of the rest of the film, these early slaughters feel disconcertingly like show-stoppers.

But that is the only serious misstep here. The rest of Zodiac painstakingly follows the four men caught up in the case to the detriment of their personal lives. Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is a homicide inspector dressed in a natty chequered jacket, the merest glimpse of which leaves you in dire need of paracetamol. His partner, Inspector William Armstrong, is notable chiefly for being played by ER's Anthony Edwards - but with hair! It's so bizarre, like a drug-free Pete Doherty or a funny Jack Dee.

At the San Francisco Chronicle, where coded letters from the Zodiac have been arriving, the dandyish reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) is on the case, assisted by Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), an eager young cartoonist whose own investigation persists for more than two decades. Fincher gets the scenes at the Chronicle office piercingly right. In this pre-computer age, the starkly lit room is alive with the rat-tat-tat of typewriters and the ceaseless ringing of chunky telephones. It reminded me of why I first wanted to go into journalism. As a child, I saw an episode of Lou Grant, the classic 1970s newspaper drama: all those scoops, and all those bolshy journos running around the office with mild drink problems and heavy stubble. The reality was different - the biggest actual suspense I ever experienced in a newspaper office was when I ventured into the sports section to borrow a stapler.

I don't know that Zodiac quite has the Lou Grant effect, which is probably for the best. The film wisely strikes a balance between conveying Graysmith's thrill at each new crumb of information and exposing the degree to which his obsession erodes all domestic harmony. Cinema commonly applauds single-mindedness in its heroes, but Zodiac shows the cost of it, too. In one scene, we see Graysmith spending quality time with his three young children: they're all sifting through evidence at the dinner table. You have to chuckle when the end titles state that nowadays "Robert Graysmith enjoys a healthy relationship with his children".

Though Zodiac begins with murder, it illustrates other, more insidious ways in which lives can be destroyed. And it acts as a mild corrective to the tendency in thrillers to dispel all that's bad in the world in the final reel. There is a telling moment here when Toschi walks out of the première of Dirty Harry, a film that turned the facts of the Zodiac case into a macho wet dream. Fincher is spurning that kind of storytelling, with its manufactured heroes, villains and resolutions. I think that's why I like Zodiac so much: it manifestly isn't Dirty Harry or CSI or Inspector Morse. Frustrating? Perhaps. But only if you believe in happy endings, or in any kind of endings at all.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger