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Director David Fincher made a name for himself in 1995 with Seven, a film of such craft that it transcended its execrable screenplay. Maybe. His next three impeccably-crafted films added up to nothing, including Fight Club , which, regardless of its cult status, had nothing to say. If ever there were a talented young director in need of better material, Fincher was it.

With Zodiac , Fincher has found a screenplay that can push back hard against his talent, half William Goldman's All the President's Men and half Lynda La Plante's Prime Suspect . The resulting film is both dense and light on its feet. Its meticulous compositions come at you almost too fast to parse, and the production and art design are ingenious. Whenever its 160 minutes bog down in endless police procedural details, the film jolts you with a little horror, like probing an abscessed tooth. Once scene, in washed-out sunlight and candy pastels, unfolds like a slow-motion nightmare, impossible to shake; something else that almost happens is worse. And always, there is the sophisticated, disarming sense of humor.

The film is based on two books by Robert Graysmith, speculating freely and ordering the known facts of that famous '70s headline inspiration for the film Dirty Harry the Zodiac mass murderer. From 1966 to1974, a man identifying himself as Zodiac terrorized Northern California with a series of killings, followed by cryptic letters mailed to prominent newspapers. The crimes are unsolved to this day, but Graysmith thought he had the right guy, and for the film, co-written by Graysmith and James Vanderbilt, there's no question about it.

The shifting point of view begins and ends with Graysmith, himself a character in the film, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Zodiac is like a decades-spanning relay race. Graysmith is there when the first letter comes in, and is the first to become obsessed. Then Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), a flamboyant reporter tolerated by serious men because what little work he does is brilliant, is drawn in, and ruined. Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who mumbles, and his partner, are hot on the trail before going gray and choosing to have a life.

Your eyes dart between details: the changing collars and hairstyles, the furnishings of a '70s California ranch home, the upholstery on the seats of a passenger jet where everyone smokes. What could have been exhausting is rescued by the actors: Downey Jr., full of charm and of himself, floating like a dancer; and Mark Ruffalo, a revelation. But then, Ruffalo is a revelation in nearly every film he's in. Fincher seems to thrive when he works with men his age.

It may be an accident - an interest in killers - that has drawn Fincher's attention away from bleak genre pictures, and that may not repeat for a while. But be grateful for his sprawling and lively wonder - a major American film.

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