Have you ever been so obsessed with discovering the capital-t Truth that you can't leave it alone, no matter what the consequences may be? Then, just as you think you've finally discovered the Truth, it a) gets away from you; b) is too scary to take on directly; or c) really wasn't worth the damage cased by the process of getting to it. Moreover, as the New Yorker's David Denby pointed out, the real end of an obsession is the obsession itself, and not the end it is ostensibly aiming to achieve. Those themes and subthemes set David Fincher's "Zodiac" apart from other procedural crime dramas, and brought up questions about some of my own, personal quests for the proverbial holy grail.
There is shockingly little actual violence in "Zodiac," seeing as how it's a movie about a notorious serial killer, the Zodiac, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But I didn't miss the bloodied, mangled corpses. The drama in the movie occurs mostly inside the SFPD and the SF Chronicle newspaper, and, to a lesser extent, police departments in outlying areas. But the real drama occurs inside the heads of Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), SFPD Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and, to a lesser extent, Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.). Graysmith wouldn't let the unsolved case die after the police departements moved onto other things, and he wrote the two books on which the movie is based. The case is officially unsolved, though Graysmith put together a pretty strong circumstantial case against a particular guy who died in 1992. The SFPD deactivated its Zodiac investigation in 2004, so it looks as though we'll never really know for sure.
That's the factual account. Gyllenhaal is brilliant with the psychological material. His Graysmith character moves from a groupie, trying to worm his way into discussions of the letters that arrived at the newspaper offices, to a throroughly obsessed madman, with boxes of files in his house and charts hanging on the wall. His wife (played by the fabulous Chloe Sevigny of "Big Love") left him over his obsession, after he endangered his family by announcing his plan to write a book in the newspaper and on television, and after he got his children involved in Zodiac-related activities. He comes off more as a geeky, obsessed, self-absorbed nut than as a dedicated crusader for truth. Mark Ruffalo is a little more low-key as the kind of "I hate to admit it, but I'm almost as obsessed as he is" Detective Toschi. Ruffalo's performance was understated, I suppose so that Gyllenhaal's charater's nuttiness would stand out. However, Robert Downey, Jr., is still a scene-stealer, and he steals his scenes in this movie, as the flambuoyant, alcoholic reporter who wrote most of the early Zodiac stories.
This is a very good movie, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a few Oscar nominations coming out of it.