Dir: David Fincher. US. 2007. 158mins.

In the shadows of this year's Oscar ceremony comes the first legitimate contender for next year's honours in the form of David Fincher's Zodiac, a dense but hypnotic and starkly involving account of the unsolved murders in California that spanned the late 1960s and 1970s. Part brooding investigative ensemble, part journalistic procedural in the vein of All The President's Men, the film is a strikingly well stitched together vivisection of crime and obsession, marked by a painstaking, novelistic richness that showcases the heavy existential toll of the pursuit of punishment.

Fincher's most mature work to date, as well as his least stylistically ambitious, Zodiac will ply discriminating upscale adult audiences for modest returns, both domestically and abroad, but its length and lack of overt cop-versus-killer thrills will dent its chances at Se7en-sized grosses or widescale embrace.

Both solid word-of-mouth amongst habitual filmgoers and Fincher's reputation as a purveyor of distinctive genre fare should help the film outstrip The Black Dahlia and Summer Of Sam, two other large-canvas true crime stories which also used shocking murders to explore, to varying degrees, paranoia and social unease. Each of those movies clocked out under $25m domestically.

The strength of Zodiac's construction and the clarity of its completely-of-a-piece storytelling, meanwhile, make an awards-season re-release seems almost certain, giving mainstream audiences potentially resistant to the movie's considerable running time and somber themes a second chance to see it.

Making inroads with this audience, and selling Zodiac as what it is - a brilliant new classic of its field - is perhaps tough, coming on the heels of as spry a crime picture as The Departed, but is key to its theatrical success. With sustained critical support and proper positioning, awards attention for Fincher, the film and its screenplay, amongst other notices, is not inconceivable, and certainly not undeserved.

Based on the true story of a serial killer who terrified the Northern California area and taunted authorities across the state with cryptic letters to the press, Zodiac is based on the non-fiction book of Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), a shy editorial cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle.

On August 1, 1969, similar letters arrive in the press rooms of three different newspapers claiming responsibility for two previous attacks which left three young people dead and another critically injured. Along with details of the crimes are a series of coded messages, with instructions to publish them. By mid-October, two more assaults leave another two dead and one injured.

While San Francisco homicide detectives Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Edwards) work the case from their side, Graysmith indulges a growing interest in the awful affair with his gifted but cynical colleague, scruffy crime beat reporter Paul Avery (Downey, Jr). Graysmith even unlocks a key reference to the 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game in one of the Zodiac's ciphers; Avery becomes a stated target of the killer, touching off his downward descent into drugs and alcohol.

Inter-jurisdictional nightmares ensue. In decided contrast to the inviolabilities of modern-day forensics often showcased in such genre pieces, the police in Zodiac are shown to be continually frustrated by problems with respect to evidence analysis, tracing and simple coordination. Conflicting modes of exploit and the Zodiac's contradictory staked claims to crimes he likely didn't commit only muddy the waters.

Over the course of many months and years, though, a tangled labyrinth of evidence eventually points to a compelling suspect. When this individual is cleared, Armstrong begs off the case. Graysmith, meanwhile, launches his own dogged investigation, conferring occasionally with a still haunted Toschi.

Many more years pass. As much as the rigorously detailed Zodiac is about specifically its namesake case, it's also a movie about the associated effects of the hunt for a murderer, and the heavy price - materially, socially, psychologically, emotionally - those seekers pay.

That screenwriter James Vanderbilt (Basic, The Rundown) avoids conventional payoffs is somewhat of a given knowing the nature of the material. It's the dark humour and digressive details of his script, though, which help truly moor the story and add to its overall tension. They make the expansive backdrop, its galloping pace - weeks, months and sometimes even years flit by with dispassionate textual cards - and the manner in which characters flow in and out of the story feel even more real.

Zodiac 's actual violence is relatively minimal, but frontloaded and grimly depicted. Fincher captures the sudden and arbitrary nastiness of these acts, and they carry a nasty wallop and enduring influence that hangs menacingly over the rest of the film.

Visually, Fincher applies the same exacting sense of detail and framing to Zodiac as his other films, abetted by Donald Graham Burt's fantastic production design and occasional collaborator Harris Savides' cinematography. Everything from the spot-on costumes, setting and newsroom lighting to David Shire's score and a discerning selection of period rock tunes (Boz Scaggs, Donovan, Marvin Gaye, et al) exudes the time period in question.

Fincher furthermore makes savvy use of a variety of directorial techniques - from a compressed montage of talk radio chatter to a time-lapsed sequence involving the construction of the city's iconic Transamerica Building - to briskly and artfully convey wide swaths of time.

The cast is superbly chosen, and the performances are uniformly engaging in their own ways. Downey, Jr, impresses his own idiosyncratic charm onto the role of Avery, while Fincher bleeds Ruffalo of the undue earnestness that has weighed down some of his recent work, resulting in the actor's most lingeringly memorable performance since You Can Count On Me.

Production companies/backers
Paramount Pictures
Warner Bros Pictures
Phoenix Pictures

US distribution
Paramount Pictures

International distribution
Warner Bros (most)

Mike Medavoy
Bradley J Fischer
Arnold W Messer
James Vanderbilt
Ceán Chaffin

Executive producer
Louis Phillips

James Vanderbilt, based upon a book by Robert Graysmith

Harris Savides

Production design
Donald Graham Burt

Angus Wall

David Shire

Main cast
Jake Gyllenhaal
Mark Ruffalo
Robert Downey, Jr
Anthony Edwards
Brian Cox
Elias Koteas
Donal Logue
Chloë Sevigny
Philip Baker Hall
John Carroll Lynch
Dermot Mulroney
Charles Fleischer