Nothing prepared me for this spellbinding package of high def digital cinematography, under-stated horror and savvy, ensemble acting. But that’s exactly what Zodiac delivers. Long (2 hours, 40 minutes) yet so taut and intricately edited that time stands still. And anyone old enough to recall the shock and awe the Bay Area experienced during the early 70s as the serial killer of the title insinuated himself onto the front pages and the collective psyche, will be gripped by this brilliant true-life crime film.zodiac.jpg

Director David Fincher has already shown his dark power in Seven, and earlier in the cult classic, Fight Club. This time he restrains himself, turns the colors down to the saturated browns of another era, with a few David Lynchean touches of aqua and acid yellow, adds some vintage Donovan to the Hurdy-Gurdy Man soundtrack and shoots away. (The digital process used by cinematographer Harris Savides is called Viper. No film, no videotape — this is the first major motion picture to use the process). The effect is visually pulverizing, as chrome grilles of Ford Galaxies fill the entire screen, every stop light oozes danger and the editorial offices of the San Francisco Chronicle take on the frenetic pulse of an entire city.

Three compelling actors — each at the top of his game — power this film along, like a mystery play in three acts. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, on whose book the film is based. With bulldog tenacity Gyllenhaal’s character gets caught up in the newsroom excitement, as the Zodiac killer begins sending his coded messages in to the newspaper. Journalist Paul Avery (played by an astonishing Robert Downey, Jr) starts tracking the case in print, while homicide detective David Toschi (played by Mark Ruffalo) tries to connect the dots as more murders crop up around the Bay Area backroads. Each man attempts to make sense of the seemingly random killings, and the enigmatic hand-written notes from Zodiac, as the film tightens, yet never succumbs to thriller genre pornography.

Downey’s character starts things off, all sarcasm and one-liners, and then hands it off to Ruffalo, whose sensuous face registers the hunger and exasperation of a cop who devotes most of his career to tracking down the still-unsolved murders. When he throws in the towel, Graysmith dives into the mystery, and becomes as obsessed with the trail of clues as the Zodiac himself. In many ways, Zodiac is not a classic crime film but a study of homicidal obsession as a virus. Anyone who stays around it for too long, becomes infected. Our three main characters become Zodiac’s victims, each in his own way — as director Fincher deliciously reveals. No gratuitous violence, no over-the-top suspense, and only a single female — Chloe Sevigny’s subtle turn as Graysmith’s wry cypher of a wife. The entire ensemble cast is outstanding. The film belongs to the sequences of flowing images and the counterpoint of edgy acting.

Two things to watch for: the shot from the top of the Golden Gate Bridge swooping down to follow a single car. And Robert Downey, Jr. — America’s answer to Jeremy Irons. Downey owns every single scene he’s in. His smart-ass bravado, intelligent body language, his eloquently dissipated face and finally his letter-perfect slide into drugs and booze and yesterday’s news – are endlessly worth watching. In fact, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him.

Zodiac — not at all what you think it’s going to be. And when was the last time Hollywood gave us that?