David Fincher's grim but mesmerizing "Zodiac" offers the puzzle-solving addictiveness of a detective story, the shivers of a thriller and...

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David Fincher’s grim but mesmerizing “Zodiac” offers the puzzle-solving addictiveness of a detective story, the shivers of a thriller and the allure of a character study, all presented with a dash of newspaper drama, a la “All the President’s Men.” Based on the true-crime books by Robert Gray-

smith, which document the years in which the San Francisco Bay Area was terrorized by a serial killer who called himself Zodiac, it’s a long movie that flies by in a minute. When it’s over, you’ll wonder why you’re leaning forward, gripping the arms of your chair, forgetting to blink.

Scripted by James Vanderbilt, “Zodiac” works thrillingly as narrative drama, featuring a twist that sounds made for the movies, but wasn’t. Zodiac, early on in his killing spree (which began in the late ’60s), sent the first of many letters to the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers, taunting the police and presenting ciphers that supposedly would reveal his identity. Graysmith (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal), then a young editorial cartoonist, became obsessed with the letters and the case. Alongside skeptical crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and dismissive homicide inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), Graysmith allowed the case to take over his life — and in doing so, became personally connected (or so he believed) with the killer.

Movie review 3.5 stars

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“Zodiac,” with Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, John Carroll Lynch, Dermot Mulroney, Chloë Sevigny. Directed by David Fincher, from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the books by Robert Graysmith. 158 minutes. Rated R for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images. Several theaters.

Although Fincher is no stranger to gruesome content (see his “Se7en” or, if you’re squeamish, don’t), “Zodiac” reminds us that he’s a master at scaring with suggestion. The murders (most of them) take place in the dark; they’re shockingly violent yet lightning-quick. The real drama unfolds under the harsh fluorescent lights of the Chronicle newsroom; or in the everyday-drab apartment of Graysmith and his family; or on the unexceptional corner of Washington and Cherry in San Francisco, where the safety of a neighborhood was shattered forever. Fincher eschews the flashy, roller-coaster camera tricks of his last film, “Panic Room,” to tell the story simply and almost quietly; the result is a model of taut pacing. The story here isn’t so much in the killings as in the intricate investigation; the scares aren’t in the gore but in the idea of it, waiting in the dark.

Gyllenhaal plays his character as jumpy, boyish and a little haunted; his eyes, over the course of the film, seem to become increasingly hollow. This Eagle Scout, earnest to a fault, makes a nice contrast with Downey’s foppish, languid Avery, who wears vests and ascots and seems to be inhabiting a slightly different universe from everybody else. To an irate editor demanding a story, he drawls, “I wrote it. I just gotta type it up.” Editor, seething: “It’s not done until you type it up.”

Always the most vivid of actors, Downey is electric here; in the late scenes, as Avery’s health fails, there’s still something lit-up within him. Ruffalo, whose rambly voice always seems deceptively vague, exudes gumshoe intelligence as Toschi. Brian Cox has a funny, sly bit part as celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli, briefly drawn into the investigation.

Those who’ve closely followed the lengthy Zodiac investigation know where the film will end up; for those who haven’t (I didn’t), surprises may be in store. At the end of almost two hours and 40 minutes, Fincher still leaves you wanting more; this expertly crafted tale of obsession creates a little obsessiveness of its own.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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