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'Zodiac' warms up a cold case

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Movies about obsessions can be wearying, especially if the obsession remains unchecked. Such would appear to be the case with "Zodiac," which is about the notorious, never-solved San Francisco serial killings. But the film turns out to be an engrossing 2-1/2-hour ride – part police procedural, part bogeyman thriller, part crime blotter version of "All the President's Men."

Director David Fincher is not known for his light touch. His most egregious film, "Se7en," – that-slash and-burn thrill ride – was also, alas, highly influential; so was "Fight Club." He gives an artsy patina to pap.

In "Zodiac," working from a script by James Vanderbilt, he has decidedly toned down his act. His straight-ahead, methodical direction isn't as flagrantly unsettling as much of his previous work, but it's more psychologically layered. In this film, for the first time, we feel for his characters when they bleed.

The film begins July 4, 1969, when the Zodiac killer – whom we see only as a hulking, masked marauder – shoots two teenagers in a lovers lane. A month later he sends ciphers to three San Francisco papers, threatening to kill again unless they are published.

He kills again, of course, this time a couple near a secluded lakeside picnic spot in Napa Valley. The murder is easily the movie's most graphic, and there's a good reason for this: By impressing on us the horror of these killings, Fincher thankfully does not need to up the ante any further as he racks up the body count.

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