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By Harry Forbes
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Have no fear. "Zodiac" (Paramount), which concerns the hunt for San Francisco's so-called Zodiac killer -- who terrorized the region beginning in the late 1960s and whose victims numbered anywhere from seven to 37 (if you count the claims made by the anonymous killer over the years) -- is not a violent exploitation film.

Rather, it's a solid, well-acted crime story focusing on investigative reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and a political cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), with a knack for deciphering codes -- both of the San Francisco Chronicle -- and two police inspectors, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), and how each of their obsessions with identifying and/or catching the elusive killer wreaked havoc on their personal lives.

It's the shy, awkward Graysmith whose story dominates as the film progresses. We watch his single-minded pursuit alienate his second wife (Chloe Sevigny) and children to the point where they move out.

The film seems based mostly on Graysmith's accounts of his involvement, which began when the Chronicle, along with the other Bay Area publications, got their first letter from a man admitting to murders with details that only the police could know to be true. Many letters followed, as the killer taunted the press and the police with letters which contained distinctive ciphers and a zodiac symbol.

The filmmakers took pains to balance Graysmith's recollections with police reports which sometimes told another story. Ultimately, James Vanderbilt's literate screenplay does finger a certain suspect as the likely culprit, but the ending is still inconclusive.

Performances are excellent with Gyllenhaal, Downey and Ruffalo (conjuring Peter Falk's Columbo) particularly outstanding.

Director David Fincher has given his film a convincing period look, and handles the murders, horrific though they are, with admirable restraint and minimal on-screen gore. All in all, three fatal encounters with the killer are dramatized: a young couple ambushed in their car; a pair of lovers picnicking at a lake; and a taxi driver who picks up the killer. Though the buildups to the first two are extremely tense, and there is an additional harrowing sequence when the (unseen) killer picks up a mother and her baby, the violence is quickly dispatched.

The film has much the same tenor as a television procedural drama like "CSI," and as such is probably acceptable for older teens and up, if parents are not bothered by the flagged elements below.

The plot, which spans a couple of decades, is at times tricky for the viewer to navigate, but holds one's interest for nearly all its three-hour length.

The film contains rough and crude language and profanity, brutal -- though brief and nongraphic -- shootings and stabbings, a vulgar gesture, alcohol and drug use, reference to child molestation and fleeting images of porn magazines. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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Forbes is director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.


Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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