"Zodiac" centers on the hunt for a California sociopath who murdered people at random in the 1960s and '70s. But that's not why we remember him. It's because he taunted police and newspaper editors with threats and bizarre cryptograms. It's because he turned his identity into a jigsaw puzzle we've been putting together and taking apart ever since.
There was — and is — a lot of evidence pointing to one suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, but the man wasn't tried and is long dead. Consequently, "Zodiac" is a very unusual serial-killer movie. It has two frightening murder set-pieces: The first, on a noisy July 4th night in a parked car; the second, in daylight, in the quiet, amid beautiful scenery.
That's about as chilling as anything I've ever seen, but it comes in the first hour of a film that lasts two-and-a-half. So where's the climax and resolution?
It's a challenge — and one the filmmakers don't fully rise to. But director David Fincher manages to drill for fresh nerves. He makes the lack of closure the source of the creeps. Long after the killings end, the hero, San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) continues to pore over case files and handwriting samples and sources for the Zodiac's code. This is finally a movie about the allure of grotesque puzzles — and living with the boogeyman when the boogeyman no longer lives.
Watching "Zodiac," it's clear the case is the cornerstone of the modern serial-killer genre.
Before "Zodiac," most movie serial killers just shut up and killed. Now, they're puzzlemasters. In David Fincher's own "Se7en," the killer designs postmortem tableaux: It's like the Louvre for necrophiles. In the repulsive "Copycat," the killer taunts a criminologist by replicating the work of other serial killers. It wasn't long before we got, in 2004's "Suspect Zero," a serial killer of serial killers.
"Zodiac" opens in a pre-serial-killer-movie age, and there's something quaint about that. The hero's wife, played by Chloe Sevigny, thinks he's putting his family at risk with his abnormal obsession. Abnormal: Wow! Nowadays, there are thousands of true-crime blogs and Internet bulletin boards on which people pore breathlessly over clues. We have forensic-scientist celebrities. Every week on this network, no less than three "CSI" shows turn autopsies into spectator sport, which makes it even more vital to make Sunday mornings here serial-killer-free ... starting right now.