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‘Zodiac’ signs read: Good 

ZODIAC CHASERS: Downey, Gyllenhaal.
  • ZODIAC CHASERS: Downey, Gyllenhaal.

Of all the monsters our society manages to create — rapists, child molesters, murderers and assorted other psychopaths — perhaps the most terrifying is the serial killer. Of those, the monster among monsters is the so-called “organized” serial killer. Exacting, calculating, careful about leaving behind evidence and usually found to have higher-than-average I.Q. when and if they’re caught, organized serial killers often terrorize their community for years before being caught or quietly fading away.

In the annals of crime, there has probably never been a murderer like the Zodiac Killer. Beginning with a double murder on a lover’s lane near Benicia, Calif., in December 1968, the Zodiac went on to kill seven young men and women over the next two years. Most disturbingly, he taunted the press and police with a series of letters describing his crimes and others he hoped to commit, often including a coded cipher in his missives.

While Hollywood has been reluctant to glorify the deeds of real-life serial killers on film, the excellent new movie “Zodiac” is a fine exception. With great performances and a nail-biting race to find the truth about the killer, it’s one of the best thrillers in many a year.

Up-and-coming star Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith. A cartoonist with a thing for codes, Graysmith is working for the San Francisco Chronicle when the first of Zodiac’s ciphers arrives. After helping to crack the code, Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case, eventually uncovering facts that even the police hadn’t puzzled out.

As Zodiac’s murders taper off and the trail goes cold, Graysmith hooks up with unstable veteran police beat reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and San Francisco police detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) — men equally obsessed with the case for their own personal reasons. Before long, Graysmith’s intuition and research steers the hunt for Zodiac away from the police obsession with handwriting analysis and toward a suspect that had already been ruled out. With his marriage falling apart and Zodiac singling him out in letters and ominous phone calls, Graysmith struggles to keep it together while trying to get inside the mind of a killer.

Gyllenhaal is excellent as the single-minded Graysmith, his Boy Scout good looks and puppy dog eyes helping sell the idea that the introverted cartoonist is going after Zodiac out of some kind of civic duty instead of a quest for glory. Equally good is Robert Downey Jr. as the self-destructive but brilliant Avery. He’s so good, in fact, that you wonder how much of his troubled self Downey brought to his portrayal of the coke-snorting newspaperman. Ruffalo could have been better — or the role of Toschi better cast — but with Gyllenhaal and Downey to hold him up, it all works well.

Though “Zodiac” is a good 40 minutes too long, there’s a nice speed to most of the film, which is often buoyed over the still spots by the genuine anxiety and fear of the characters. It’s definitely one of the top five films so far this year, and sure to haunt this reviewer’s memories for a long time. If you don’t mind a little violence, be sure to see it (old newspaper folk will get a kick out it too, with its time-machine journey back to the days before newspapers owned faxes and computers).

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